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Title: Hanging Waters (1933)
Author: Keith West (pseudonym of Kenneth Westmacott Lane) (1893-1954)
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Language:  English
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Title: Hanging Waters (1933)
Author: Keith West (pseudonym of Kenneth Westmacott Lane) (1893-1954))


TO
AH KAM



CONTENTS:

I.      Uncle Tung Lai Luk
II.     Mother-Wisdom
III.    Idyll
IV.     The Sorcerer
V.      A Bargain
VI.     The Temple of Memory
VII.    Borrowed Philosophy of a Poet
VIII.   Bottom, Thou Art Translated
IX.     Oars in the Twilight
X.      "The Happy Heart"
XI.     The Bearer of a Noble Name
XII.    Tragi-Comedy
XIII.   To Lie like a Gentleman
XIV.    Future and Past
XV.     Their Strength is to Sit Still
XVI.    An Old Fairy-tale
XVII.   News and a Dream
XVIII.  The Literary Method
XIX.    Sleuth
XX.     Dried Fish
XXI.    Views of a Crime
XXII.   Scena
XXIII.  The Black Box
XXIV.   The Honest Brigand
XXV.    Po Feng Hsi loses his Temper
XXVI.   The Mouse-trap and the Tiger
XXVII.  The Odyssey of an Optimist
XXVIII. How to Make a Widow
XXIX.   Three Problems
XXX.    Doves of Experience
XXXI.   You Again?
XXXII.  Second Attempt
XXXIII. Tale of a Hat
XXXIV.  In Accordance with the Criminal Code
XXXV.   Hanging Waters

* * * * *



CHAPTER I UNCLE TUNG LAI LUK


"IT is a pity," said Ming So, squatting on his heels on the raised
embankment, "that the sides of this paddy-field are not in line with the
points of the compass, for if they were we might expect a better yield
of rice."

His mother halted the water-buffalo and gave a further roll up to each
of her trouser-legs.

"What man told you that?" she demanded. Then, without waiting for an
answer, she raised one foot and splashed the water-buffalo. The signal
moved the animal, the animal moved the wooden plough, and Ming Nai waded
on across the paddy-field, the handles of the plough in her unswerving
grip. Her son saw her turn at the far end. As she passed him again, she
added, "Because he is no wiser than you are, my son." This time she did
not even stop the plough as she passed.

Ming So remained squatting on the raised embankment which held the
precious water in the paddy-field. By and by, to-morrow if not to-day,
he would have to bucket water into that paddy-field--a work of
considerable monotony, whose results were not immediately obvious.
Therefore an unsatisfying piece of work. To-day, or to-morrow, or the
week after--it did not matter much. His mother finished the few
remaining mud-furrows, tethered the animal to a stake on the flat,
raised bank, dragged the primitive plough to dry land, and came towards
him.

"What man told you of the points of the compass?" she demanded.

"It was Pai Kwat, the schoolmaster," Ming So told her as he rose to his
feet and trotted along beside her, homewards. "He is a very great man,
is Pai Kwat. He knows all that there is to learn of Feng Sui--the
Science of Favourable Aspects--besides a great deal of other learning
of which I have not plucked a single blade. He is a great man, is Pai
Kwat. His voice tells his greatness to those who have the intelligence
to observe. You have heard the booming note with which he instructs the
children in the village school?"

"Drums also boom, and drums are empty," said his mother succinctly. "No,
my son, you are too ready to listen with attention to loud noises
without duly considering their meaning. Of course, your dead father had
the same fault, so that you probably inherit it from him. If your father
had thought less of Feng Sui, in the matter of selecting his grave,
there would be less need, now, for me to guide that foolish beast along
uncounted furrows in our paddy-field. To buy land for his grave at the
ridiculous rate which he paid for it, just because the land was supposed
to be lucky! Why, when men are dead, they all look the same." She
laughed quietly to herself. "And smell the same, wherever their grave
may chance to be," she added.

"But when people die," persisted the boy, "is it not of the highest
importance where their graves may be? Does not the eternal comfort of
the dead man's soul depend on the forethought which he or his family
expend on the choice of a suitable burial place? The honourable teacher,
Pai Kwat, tells many tales of evil which has befallen a family because
they did not pay due attention to Feng Sui."

Ming Nai snorted impatiently.

"Pai Kwat! Pai Kwat! Who is this Pai Kwat that his tales should deplete
a widow's money-box? What does he know of anything except the
over-praised wisdom of the ancients and the contents of his musty books?
Now, if you ask me for the name of a wise man, I would mention your
uncle, the honourable Tung Lai Luk, who is favouring our unworthy
household with his presence to-day. There is a man for you, if you like!
No nonsense about the tales of the ancients. Still, you have seen only
thirteen winters, so that we must not yet expect from you the ripe
judgment of your elders."

The boy skipped delightedly.

"To-day he is coming? I thought it was tomorrow." He left her side for a
moment in fruitless pursuit of a water-rat. When the ripples of its dive
had subsided, he returned. "And this great uncle of ours, why is he so
great and wise a man? Has he learning, or money?"

"He possesses the learning which brings money, my son, and the money
which that learning brings. He does not mistake to-day for to-morrow,
nor noise for importance."

"I shall be very attentive when my uncle comes," said the boy. "It is
possible to learn much by observation, and he must truly be a great man
for you to say so." Thus he paid an almost unconscious tribute to his
mother's critical faculties. "And I, who am the head of the family of
Ming, have much need of knowledge if that family is to assume again its
merited importance."

She said nothing to this, and presently they came to the small
mud-walled house which was home. The poverty of the family had not
prevented a certain neatness in the unambitious building: the two
sleeping-rooms were as spotless as the one living-room, and even the
kitchen at the rear exhibited an order quite unusual in a Chinese
kitchen. Yet, even so, Ming Nai was not satisfied. Having washed the mud
of the paddy-field from her legs, she set about a last and largely
superfluous sweeping of the tiled floor, while Ming So, slicing beans
into a basin, reflected on the mixed blessing of an uncle's visit. This
was his mother's brother, he mused. Why, then, should his mother strive
to make the house appear cleaner than it ought to be? His mother's
brother would know, being a wise man, that this tidiness was abnormal.
But then, he also would know, being a wise man, that women are happiest
when they seem to achieve perfection in the ordinary course of their
duties, claiming (silently, of course) praise for the presumed
permanency of this uncomfortable and unreal state.

Ming So sliced beans, while his mother swept and garnished. And by and
by a carrying-chair set down at the devil-stopper outside the door. He
heard an uncomplimentary remark from one of the coolies who had borne
the chair, comparing the smallness of the house with the expected tip
from Uncle Tung Lai Luk. Then his uncle had arrived, and Ming So, as
titular head of the household, had secreted the beans in a cupboard and
was bowing with a dignity beyond his years in the middle of the
living-room.

"This is an honour of which even my mother is not worthy," he was
saying, "much less myself."

Tung Lai Luk, the very picture of a successful business man whose
stocky, unimaginative form had thrust through difficulties and
(possibly) dangers, stood smiling, as a visiting uncle should smile, at
the dignified figure of his little nephew. Behind him a coolie had
deposited two black, shiny suitcases. Tung's small black skull-cap,
decorated with a button of the third order of Mandarins, to which he was
not entitled, nodded as if to say that here was all he could possibly
have hoped for or expected.

"I, myself, am unduly honoured," he said, as custom prescribes--albeit
he used the phrase as if he were fully aware of its emptiness. "And your
honourable mother?" he demanded.

At the words Ming Nai came from the smaller bedroom. Her hair had been
freshly braided, she wore her best pair of black trousers, and her hands
were folded in front of her as she stood, head bowed, awaiting her
brother's permission to speak. For Ming Nai, despite her very
clear-sighted ideas on the relations between men and women, played a
part because she sought from this brother of hers, whom she despised not
a little as a pompous gas-bag, advancement for her only son, Ming So. It
was possible that he might offer to take the boy away with him to the
distant city, there to give him that opportunity for advancement which
she herself could not hope to provide.

"You are well, my sister?" asked Tung Lai Luk.

"As well as circumstances and the perpetual mud of the paddy-field
permits," she replied. "But I have no right to complain, possessing as I
do a brother who honours our roof with a visit, and a son who will be
able to perform the ancestral duties at the tombs of his fathers. But do
you come into our home and treat it as your own," she added, remembering
what she wanted from her brother.

The coolies brought in the suitcases and put them down, looking askance
at the coin which the merchant proffered. Ming So moved a chair into
what he wished to appear a more convenient position. Ming Nai retired to
the kitchen.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Night had not so much surrounded the little house as engulfed it--night
with its spaced jewels hung in the branches of the nearly
invisible trees--while a faint wind stirred small rustles under the
door and round the eaves of the house. Uncle Tung Lai Luk had been fed
and was now sitting on a porcelain barrel at one side of the table,
while at the other side little Ming So valiantly played host and his
mother put in an edged word when opportunity offered.

"And now," said Tung Lai Luk, "now that the familiarity fitting and
decent between relations has begun to displace the formality fitting and
decent between newly-met relations, may I enquire, sister, what you mean
to do with this young nephew of mine?"

"Do with him?" Ming Nai almost forgot, in her delight that the subject
had at last come under discussion, the deference due to her brother. "Do
with him? What can I do with him? My eyesight is yet sharp enough to see
that, here in the little village of Ha Foo, there is no suitable
occupation for a boy of thirteen summers, no path wherein he may
profitably walk, no goal towards which he may profitably strive. There
are but the poor paddy-fields which the honoured and lamented father of
Ming So did not sell in order to provide for fitting obsequies. Behind
the plough, after the wooden harrow, as the proverb says, birds may
profit, but seldom men."

Tung Lai Luk nodded his head in comprehension, passing without comment
over his sister's too great outspokenness.

"I know," he agreed. "For some moons, now, I have been considering the
future of the lad, so far as my weightier business matters have
permitted, and as the result of this exercise of forethought I do not
think, sister, that you overstate the effect on the mind of a sensible
boy of the monotony, the depressingly small returns, of our deplorably
elementary methods of rice-culture. The paddy-field is not a suitable
place for your son, my sister, nor for my nephew."

Ming Nai nodded in her turn.

"Your wisdom is, as ever, the _wisdom of jade_, and I daily return
thanks to the ancestors of the Ming family for having permitted my son
to have so excellent an uncle." She felt more or less confident, now,
that Tung Lai Luk would make some proposal or other about the boy. "It
is generous of you to spare the time to consider his plight."

"He is an intelligent boy," said Tung Lai Luk, "I presume that he has
duly studied the classics--that he knows by heart the words of the
Master, Confucius?"

"His teacher, the honourable Pai Kwat, has often spoken of the progress
which the boy has been making," assented Ming Nai, without specifying
the matter of Pai Kwat's remarks.

Her brother did not misunderstand her, however. "We must remember that
even learning may be deceptive," he said. "The wisest often impress
their teachers little. Now, I have a proposition to make."

Ming Nai leaned forward. The moments for which she had been waiting had
arrived. Ming So opened his mouth in apparent surprise, as his mother
had told him to do whenever his mother nudged him with her foot.

Tung Lai Luk drew his chair slightly nearer to the chairs of Ming Nai
and Ming So.



CHAPTER II MOTHER-WISDOM


"OPPORTUNITIES should be embraced with both hands," began Tung Lai Luk
sententiously. "Now, in this land of paddy-fields there are few
opportunities to embrace, and, if there are few opportunities, it is not
to be expected that a boy like my nephew should prosper as is his
undoubted right." He paused. "In the city, however, it is different.
There, we find men of all sorts, and opportunities as many and as varied
as the men. Do you not agree with me, my sister?"

Ming Nai saw that, given time, he would come to the point, so she said:
"You are as right as may be."

Thus flattered, Tung proceeded: "It is impossible for him to go to the
city without having a position to which to proceed. I very much doubt if
the gains which you, my sister, wrest from an unkind and reluctant land
would provide enough funds to keep the boy in Kwei Sek for a single
week. Therefore we must consider how a position for him may be found."

Ming So nodded at his uncle's wisdom.

"It is only the opportunity which is necessary," he said. "Given the
opportunity, I should find little difficulty in taking due advantage of
it."

"Do not be too confident," replied his uncle. "It is one thing to have a
plan and quite another thing to put that plan into execution. Now the
plan which I have formed for you (after much consideration--and, I may
say, much misgiving) necessitates an application, an industry on your
part which you will find difficult of attainment. Remember that work,
really hard work, is not always as pleasant as sitting on the banks of a
paddy-field; that to rise with the sun and go again to rest long after
the sun's setting, calls for determination in one who has seen thirteen
winters only. Remember that."

"I will do my best," answered the boy, not particularly depressed at the
thought of the life of toil suggested by his uncle's words. He was
trying to imagine what might be the nature of the promised opportunity.
In his uncle's office? A clerk? Surely not. What then?

"He is a good boy at times," ventured his mother guardedly.

Tung Lai Luk heaved the sigh of a man whose breast is full of important
matters.

"I will take him into my house," he said. "Of course, at his tender age
he can expect to receive only his food: I will, however, add to that
some small money for such foolishness as boys are accustomed to find
desirable. You, my sister, will doubtless be able and ready to provide
him with a sufficiency of clothes to equip him for residence in such a
household as mine."

"Clothes are unbelievably expensive," returned Ming Nai. "Nevertheless,
I will make an effort to provide him with what may be needful. For,
indeed, so generous and unexpected an offer calls for me, in my turn, to
do something for the boy. We are grateful, he and I, and I hope that
you, my honourable brother, will not fail to understand how grateful we
are." At the back of her mind she was thinking that the old miser might
at least have given the boy his clothes. It would mean skimping and
saving on her part for many moons before she could pay off the money
which she would have to borrow in order to pay for those clothes. Still,
even a single grain of rice was better than an empty rice-bowl. "I will
do what I can."

The boy's delight at the prospect was in danger of overcoming the
reserve which he knew to be expected of him.

"I am to go to the city with you, my uncle? Oh, but that will be
wonderful! To see all the great men and learn how they make their
money..."

"Do not expect too much of the city," said Tung, with unexpected wisdom.
"It is, in many evil respects, very like the country in which you have
been brought up." But the boy had not heard him: in imagination he was
already amongst the great ones of the earth, learning how the elusive
copper _cash_ might be enticed towards the hand, like trout in a
mountain stream... Only in his imagination these copper _cash_ had
been transmuted to silver dollars, large, tinkling silver dollars.

"When do I go?" he cried, and his mother answered him.

"In no such indecent and discourteous haste as you seem to desire," she
said. "Run away now, and see that the back door into the kitchen is
locked. I fear that I forgot it in the excitement of your honourable
uncle's summons to speak with him on this matter of your future." When
the boy had gone out of the room, she leaned over and whispered: "Can
you not lend me the money for his clothes, at whatever rate of interest
you may think right and just? The moneylenders in this village of Ha Foo
devour the very bones of those who are unlucky enough to need to borrow
money from them."

"It has been a bad year," her brother replied. "Only the duty which I
feel towards my family and their requirements gives me strength enough
to keep on working, working, for a mere pittance. And you, who are not
any longer of the family of Tung, having married the late lamented Ming
Cheung Wai, should by rights depend on the family of the Mings for your
aid in such a matter as this of clothing the lad. Still... I will buy
clothes for the boy when he gets there; you and he may regard it as a
loan, to be repaid without interest as soon as the boy earns his money.
I cannot take interest from you, even if we are now of different
families. Ah, little nephew, and was the door locked?" For the boy had
come in again. "Your feet are silent on this rattan matting: I hope that
one day your step will be more clearly audible when you enter. Thick
paper soles on the polished boards, as marks a man of property." For he
was feeling kindly towards the boy and to his sister Ming Nai, as
benefactors always feel towards the objects of their benefactions.

His mother spoke for Ming So. "I trust, I also, that he may succeed. As
the Master, Confucius, says, 'First cut and then polish,' and I hope
that I have cut the jade well enough for you to polish it. Then indeed
he may attain those heights of success which your words call up to me."
She paused, wondering if this were precisely the right moment in which
to press her brother for further concessions, then decided to venture.
"But while, under your vigilant eye, he is gaining wisdom in the city, I
am wondering who will assist me in the yearly duties of rice-planting
here in Ha Foo. At present I have been able to snatch a bare subsistence
from the reluctant soil: without Ah So I fear that even my increased
efforts will be insufficient to bring in enough money to support me. And
it would not be fitting that men should say of the widow of Ming Cheung
Wai that she could not provide enough food for her brother when he
condescended to visit her."

Tung Lai Luk was grave as he sat there.

"My sister, it is very unfortunate, but the clothes which I have
promised and the food which this unproductive nephew of mine will
consume represent the extreme limit to which I can stretch the purse of
liberality. It has been a bad year, as I said: I have suffered losses:
creditors are pressing, debtors reluctant. I am not as young as I was,
and the strain is very heavy." His catalogue of woes exhausted itself.
"No--I fear that what you ask is quite impossible."

Ming Nai nodded sagely as he ceased speaking. "That is all very true,"
she said. "It is as true of me as it is of you. But my suggestion (if I
may be so bold as to make a suggestion) would be, I fancy, of advantage
to us both."

"Go on: I am listening," said Tung Lai Luk.

"If I could have a _mui-tsai_, matters would right themselves," she
proceeded. "Now I have not the money to buy one of these girls, nor (I
believe) can you spare the money from your business in the city.
Nevertheless Pai Kwat, the school-teacher, has ten children, and in the
middle of the row-of-decreasing-size stands a daughter whose age is
eleven summers. In a village such as this Ha Foo, Pai Kwat has little or
no chance of marrying off this daughter of his." She turned to her son.
"Run away again, Ah So, and stop away." They both waited until the boy
had gone out. "Now, the family of Pai is an ancient family, and he would
wish to marry the girl into a family of equal age, such as the Mings."

"I see," her brother nodded. "You propose to marry the two now. But the
expense of a marriage such as befits the two families..."

"I do not propose to marry them now. I am aware that in unenlightened
parts of the Flowery Kingdom these marriages of children still happen,
but I should regard it as a failure of my duty if I allowed my son Ah So
to marry before he knew and appreciated the main purpose and at the same
time the main disadvantage of marriage--the production of children.
Long hours in the fields provide me with many thoughts which are all the
better for an airing, so do not be shocked, my brother, if I appear
outspoken."

"Go on," Tung returned, seeing no other course. "And what then do you
propose?"

"I propose that Pai Mei, the girl in question, should come to me until
such time as Ah So, under your skilful tutelage, becomes capable of
earning enough money to support a wife, whom he will then be able to
treat as a wife expects to be treated. You will, I hope, talk this
subject over with the learned Pai Kwat; you will convince him, and you
and I will sign a document to that effect. Thus I shall gain what is in
reality a _mui-tsai_, while Pai Kwat will be free from the cost of the
girl's food (which greatly troubles him) and will gain the promise of
marriage into the ancient family of Ming. What say you, my brother?"

"The proposal has less in it of folly than one would expect," conceded
the other. "I will think it over, and if I agree I will see this Pai
Kwat to-morrow morning. For the moment I am tired after much
journeying."

She rose to her feet. "I fear that I have neglected my duties," she
said. "I should have thought of that. May I show you the bed which I
have put up for you?..."

Their voices faded into a murmur. Ming So cautiously put his head round
the corner of the door, made sure that the coast was clear, and then ran
silently to the back door, closing it after him with considerable care.



CHAPTER III IDYLL


AT the back of the mud-walled house attached to the village school was a
sleeping-room built on at a later date, designed to accommodate the
overflow of the family which the generosity of the gods had given Pai
Kwat, holder of the Hanlin degree and largely unpaid teacher to the
horde of other children which the same liberal gods had rained upon the
wedded couples of Ha Foo. The back wall of this additional room
possessed a cracked and leaky oiled-paper window, and through the corner
of this window, a long, thin twig of bamboo might be pushed with the
accuracy of long practice, so that it would tickle the face of Pai Mei,
sleeping there alongside four others of her family, tickle her face and
awaken her without waking the others.

Only Ming So had the ability and practice to manoeuvre the bamboo twig
in this manner. Besides, he alone judged it to be worth while to run the
risk of a beating from the schoolmaster Pai Kwat for the sake of a
midnight meeting with Pai Kwat's daughter.

She came out now, after he had endured a little breathless wait in the
shade of the bamboo-clump, and they moved out of sight (had any but the
great, warm moon been looking), out of sight down the path to their
secret meeting-place in the malodorous centre of what was at once the
village rubbish-depository and the local breeding-ground for mosquitoes.

He was thirteen: she was eleven. They stood shyly looking at each
other--they were always shy for the first minute--and then Ming So said:
"Let us sit down here, on this log of wood, for I have much to tell you
which concerns us both. I am going to the city with my uncle."

"That will be lovely," he heard the little voice beside him whisper.
Then came a suppressed snuffling. "I am very glad," she sniffed.

"But you are weeping, Ah Mei!" The boy was astonished. "Why should you
weep? But listen: there is other news beside that. You are to go to the
house of my honourable mother, to help her in the fields, until I am old
enough to return from the city and marry you. Is not that wonderful? The
thing which we had hoped has fallen on us like a shooting star."

"But we shall not see each other any more--not for many moons, at the
very least," she wailed. "Ooh! And I had found a new place where we may
go into the forest and bathe in the brook, and I have caught a new
_cicada_ for you, a beautiful _cicada_, the biggest I have ever seen,
and it was going to be a present for you, and--ooh!"

The Chinese do not, as a rule, kiss. It is bad manners, to say the least
of it, thus to touch another human being unnecessarily. Yet in the
luminous night these two children sat side by side with their arms round
each other, comforting, comforted. In the great black shadows under the
high trees the metallic note of a _cicada_ rang out shrilly, and in the
wet mud by their feet a bull-frog belled.

"Little Star, my sweetheart, do not mourn," said Ming So. "It will not
be for long, and think how wonderful it will be when I come back to
marry you."

"You will find some other girl, and I shall pull her hair out, so that
she shall be ugly and you will then come back to me," said Pai Mei, with
determination and despair at once in her voice. "But how do you know, Ah
So, that you will go away to the city?"

"My uncle from Kwei Sek came to see us, as I told you that he would
come, and he and my honourable mother have been burning the oil while
they sat and talked about me. I listened at the door, of course. They
had sent me out, you see, because they wished to speak privately, though
why they should wish to hide from me what is to happen to me, I cannot
imagine. Now my mother will be looking for me, and I shall be beaten,
and she will say that I am an evil child and a child of the evil spirits
of the hillside. But it does not matter, Little Star." For she was
crying again. "Take comfort. Come: we will forget my mother and your
mother, and we will go to the new place in the forest which you say that
you have found, and when we come back, what will be, will be. Come,
Little Star, show me the place of which you spoke."

She stifled her sobs now, as she took him past the high, hump-backed
bridge with the stream roaring underneath to fall into the back abyss
below the big tree, past the little shop of the leather-worker, whose
window still showed industrious light, and down the narrow grass path
beside the bottom paddy-field. Then she turned to the right between the
bushes growing at the very corner of the field, where the forest began.

And now, in the faintest of light, under the great creepers brushing
their faces, she led him through the forest. Neither considered any risk
which they might be running, though some large animal moved stealthily
in the night and the path was difficult and tortuous. Ever, ahead of
them, sounded the roar of a waterfall, and it was below this waterfall
that they eventually emerged, very close to each other, into a gloom
which seemed like daylight after the blackness of the forest. Before
them shone the water of a pool which narrowed towards the end remote
from the fall, narrowed and became shallower, on a gravel bottom. The
ripples from the fall rushed endlessly over the gravel and lost
themselves in the rank rushes of the bank.

"There!" whispered Pai Mei, with almost the pride of a landscape
gardener. "Is it not lovely?"

"It is a beautiful pool," agreed the boy. "And the gravel here would be
pleasant and clean for the feet. But I have just remembered that, if I
bathe now in these clothes, they will not be dry by the time I reach
home, and in the absence of rain my mother will know what I have been
doing. Also, when she consults with your own honourable mother
to-morrow, she will find that you, too, returned home at a late hour in
wet clothes and..."

"I can dry mine at the stove," said Pai Mei. "Besides..."

"What? And have you such a number of clothes, O affluent one, that you
can afford to take out a clean suit to sleep in while the other dries?"

She put her arm round him.

"Let us bathe without," she whispered.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

The moon had risen so far in the sky that at last her slanting finger
touched the verge of the pool, then the pool itself. And in the pool,
still very close to each other, stood Ming So and Pai Mei, little
statues of grey-olive in the silver light. The water rippled round their
ankles, and they cast a little ring of splashes with each movement, as
water dripped from them.

"I wonder what my mother meant this evening when she spoke of treating a
wife as a wife should expected to be treated?" Ah So was saying. "Little
sweetheart, do I treat you as you would expect?"

"Yes," she whispered, and her arm tightened round him. Then, suddenly,
"Ooh! We're in the light!" She let him go and dashed to the shore.
Shortly afterwards, two completely naked children, each holding a parcel
of clothes to be put on when their skins were dry, trotted homewards
through the black tunnel of the forest.

On the forest's edge they dressed shyly, turning their backs on each
other, then crept towards the village. At the bridge they parted, not
lengthily, for each sensed danger from an angered parent.

And, indeed, at almost the same time shortly afterwards, two irate
mothers were engaged in chastising their children, so that two shrill
cryings disturbed the night.

Ming So yelled because he wanted to make his mother think that she had
hurt him enough. Besides, it would wake up Uncle Tung Lai Luk, and then
his mother would stop beating him.

But Pai Mei cried much more bitterly than her mother's blows warranted,
because Ming So was soon to go away to the city.



CHAPTER IV THE SORCERER


ON the ceiling swung slowly the pattern of light which escaped through
the triangular holes in the brass cover of the little hanging lamp. This
pattern of yellow prints circled about the hook from which the lamp
depended by its length of brass chain: the brass oil-container threw a
deep cone of shadow below the lamp. In the four corners of the room tiny
pin-pricks of red smouldered steadily in the darkness, and four
invisible coils of scented smoke rose upwards from the glowing _heung_
which had been lit there. The whole room was filled with the
overpowering sweetness of this incense, so that to the man sitting
motionless in the cone of blackness it seemed as if the slowly circling
pattern of light above him were receding upwards, outwards, to the
infinite heavens, leaving him seated at the hub of the world, while
about him the stars turned for ever in their slow paths.

Before him lay, open, the _I-Ching_--the Book of Changes--at the
seventeenth hexagram, and, although he could not see the book, he was
now repeating aloud, like an incantation, the meaning of the sixth line
in the hexagram:

"The sixth line, undivided, tells us to look at the whole course that is
trodden, to examine the presage which that gives. If it be complete and
without failure, there will be great good fortune."

His voice ceased as the lamp chain reached the limit of its torsion, and
the stars halted and began to retrace their unhurried paths in the
drugged heavens.

"To consider the future of which it tells," repeated Pai Kwat: "to
consider the future..."

He lifted the cover of a chased brass incense-burners standing beside
him, and threw on the glowing sandalwood a pinch of powder. To the
sweetness of _heung_ was now added a bitterness as of the rough taste of
an unripe orange.

"To consider the future..." murmured Pai Kwat: "to consider the future..."

In the darkness into which he stared hung the face of his daughter, Pai
Mei, and beside her face another dimly showed--Ming So's face, turned
towards the girl.

"The plain ground for the colours," quoted Pai Kwat sonorously from one
of the passages of the Master, Confucius, which he did not quite
understand. "Yes--I have considered the future. It shall be so."

He rose to his feet a little unsteadily and went out of the room towards
his bed, while behind him in the empty room the pale yellow stars of
light still circled endlessly, retraced endlessly their tireless orbits,
and four red glow-worms in the corners of the room showed faintly in an
atmosphere mingled of sweet and bitter.



CHAPTER V A BARGAIN


THE arrival of Pai Kwat at the house of the Mings was a matter for no
little ceremony; little Ming So, during school-time, had never treated
his teacher with the deference which now, on all hands, that august
personage found prepared against his visit. But, then, the boy was able
to reflect, Chinese customs clothe the aged with a dignity which the
profession of school-teacher is liable to destroy, and here Pai Kwat was
no longer striving to instil into effervescent childhood the meaning of
the more recondite passages of the Chinese classics. No--not at all.
Pai Kwat was here as the father of Pai Mei, and in this capacity he had
come to discuss with Uncle Tung Lai Luk the proposal for his daughter's
future. Dignity was therefore fitting. But it was amusing to see them
together--the old and the new. Pai Kwat would quote some doubtless
relevant passage from a book which Tung had forgotten (or never read),
and Tung would reply gravely with the wisdom of the merchant, always
countering theory with practice and wisdom with money. They were talking
now.

_"A wise man adapts himself to circumstances, as water fits the jar,"_
said the old man. "I have little money, and the security of my small
daughter necessitates a certain amount of forethought on my part.
_Diseases may be cured, but not destiny._"

"What you have said is wise, and indeed where should we expect to find
wisdom, if not in our teachers?" agreed Tung Lai Luk. "It clearly
behoves us parents and guardians, therefore, to see that Nature's bounty
is not wasted, and in what way, I ask you, could that better be managed
than by a formal contract between your honorable daughter and my
sister's unworthy son?" He spoke thus deprecatingly of his nephew in
consonance with immemorial belittlement. "In a few years he will,
doubtless, have gained in wisdom and ability, so that, by the time that
the family peach is ripe, he will make her a husband no more useless
than most husbands are."

The teacher nodded. "True," said he. "And yet it is an unusual thing for
me to give my daughter to your sister as a help in the house. I have
misgivings when I consider a course so uncharted in the ancient habit of
our race, so unjustified by precedent."

"But think of the advantages!" urged the merchant, as if he were selling
something. "You have no longer to support your daughter, to provide her
food, her raiment. You will know that she is in a good family, where she
will learn manners and the finer points of housekeeping. Thus your mind
will be at rest, and her shrill voice will not any longer disturb your
nightly studies. Her mother will be freed from the responsibility of
looking after her. And, when the years have made my unworthy nephew a
man of importance and your daughter a useful woman, the two houses will
be united by bonds which are firmer than mere words. We both stand to
gain not a little by my suggestion."

Ming Nai smiled where she sat, a little behind and apart from the two
men. That her brother should thus claim credit for her own idea mattered
naught, if he could persuade old Pai Kwat of the desirability of the
proposed arrangement. Ming So, beside her, listened with ill-concealed
delight to each point made by his uncle and with hardly veiled
intolerance when Pai Kwat, with warning forefinger, put forth his absurd
objections.

_"A gem must be ground by the polisher of gems, as man must be perfected
by adversity,"_ said Pai Kwat. "I do not think that your promising
nephew has yet had his share of trouble. _It is only in winter that men
know the pine and the cypress to be evergreens._ They say that _the full
stomach cannot understand hunger,_ and you cannot deny that he has been
housed, fed, and tended better than the average boy has a right to
expect. But what efforts has he made to repay his mother's devotion? Is
his work at my school such as to lead me to expect the constant
application, the unceasing labour, necessary to make him into a worthy
citizen? _A parent's affection is best shown by teaching the child
industry and self-denial._ But has the boy worked? Has he denied
himself?" He raised his shoulders heavenwards, and Ming So, unobserved,
made the motion of spitting. Having thus relieved himself, he listened
again.

"But, sir," argued his uncle Tung, "_ivory is not obtained from a rat's
teeth._ The boy is a good boy--he has aided his widowed mother for
many a year. We cannot all shine at the purely intellectual pursuits of
whose perfection you are so bright an example. Can you imagine a world
filled with nothing but literary men? No, there are other virtues
besides the virtue of attainment in letters. If we were all students of
the ancient classics, who would plough the rice-fields?"

"That again is true," agreed Pai Kwat. "And yet I would have had the lad
strive harder with his writing-brush. _Who swallows quickly chews but
little_, they say, and despite my frequent reproofs the boy persists in
a merely superficial, parrot-like learning of such poor matters as I can
find to teach him." The speaker nodded as if to compliment himself for
his sagacity. "When he is compelled to support the wife whom now we
propose to contract to him, he will have to make efforts far greater
than those which he has hitherto made."

"May I suggest," Tung countered, "that they also say that _in a wife,
virtue is needed, in a handmaid, beauty._ And we cast no aspersions on
your family when we suggest that your daughter Mei is not outstandingly
noted for one or the other. Yet we offer her marriage, in a year or two,
with the eldest son, the only son, of an honourable family. Can you
really hope to obtain for her a better offer elsewhere?"

"I would not have you imagine, for a moment," protested Pai Kwat, "that
I underestimate in any way the honour which you propose to do to my
humble family. No. But to a father the responsibility for a daughter is
nearly as great as the responsibility for a son, and while I perhaps
strive _to add legs to the snake_ in thus discussing the proposition
further, I know that you will attribute my prolixity to the love which I
bear my daughter, not to any failure to measure fairly the honour of
your suggestion."

"Then it is settled?" The merchant strove to clinch the bargain.

"Settled? I thought we had only just begun to discuss it," said Pai
Kwat, with raised eyebrows. "Now, as to money..."

"_You cannot strip two skins from one cow,_" said Tung Lai Luk, very
hastily.

"True. But _to swim with one foot on the ground_ is a mark of prudence
in the learner. And money, that evil necessity, cannot with impunity be
ignored. You propose to contract my daughter to your nephew. How much
would you...?"

"My family is poor," said Tung. "We have difficulty in filling our own
rice bowls, let alone those of others. Besides, is not the advantage of
taking one mouth from your table a matter of money?"

"She does not eat much," suggested Pai Kwat hopefully. "To split a
melon-seed in thus calculating is a feat beyond my powers. No: some more
definite payment--some tangible consideration..."

Ming So could contain himself no longer.

"But I love Pai Mei," he cried. "What is all this talk of money?"

His mother seized him by the ear. "Little chatterbox!" she cried. "You
will go in here, in the kitchen, and stay there, silent, while wiser
people discuss things which really matter. Love, indeed! And how can
love fill the rich-bowl? Can love buy clothing? In here, silent, then."
She shut the door on the boy, and, returning, lowered her head in
seeming respect as she again took her seat somewhat apart from the two
men.

"You see with what feather-brained notions his head is full!" said Pai
Kwat. "I feel more strongly than ever that I should be doing definite
wrong if I contracted my daughter to your nephew without some bond more
lasting than the love of which the boy prattles."

"He _who does not soar high will suffer the less by a fall,_" said Tung
Lai Luk. "So you propose?..."

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Later on, when Pai Kwat had gone, Ming Nai said to her brother: "The old
fool desired the contract as heartily as we desired it. Why need he make
such an ado about the money?" She knew the answer to this question
before Tung Lai Luk spoke.

"Great wealth comes by destiny, moderate wealth by industry. Pai Kwat is
a very industrious man," he replied. "And, now that all is signed, we
shall make arrangements for my return to the city, with your son, the
day after to-morrow. I must interview the coolies about the baggage." He
went out.

"Pai Mei will be here for one day before I go?" said the boy to his
mother. "That will be lovely. And may we go out together for a little
while? There is much to say when a man and a woman part."

His mother smiled tolerantly.

"As you will, my son. You will soon have to decide things for yourself
without my help, so you may start now. But, first, there is the wood
which you promised to fetch for the fire."

Ming So sighed.



CHAPTER VI THE TEMPLE OF MEMORY


"YES, all is prepared for the journey," said Ming So. "My clothes are
all packed in the shiny black boxes, and there is nothing more to be
done."

Pai Mei regarded him tearfully, for even at eleven years she knew that
there was something of finality about this parting.

"For many years I shall not see you," she said, and her eyes were wet.
"Here, in Ha Foo, I shall be serving your mother and doing, probably
more thoroughly than you ever did, the things which she demands of me. I
shall help her in the duties of the house: I shall help her in the
paddy-field. And while I am here, where nothing ever happens, you will
be very far away in the great city on the river to the east, occupied
with countless matters of business, meeting countless people, and
thinking not at all of me."

"Sweetheart," the boy assured her, "I shall always think of you. When,
at night, I look out above the busy housetops to see the _moth's
eyebrow_ moon resting on a silver cloud, I shall think that you will be
looking, perhaps, at the same moon. Over the dark trees you will see the
moon and think of me. I shall go to bed each night thinking of you, and,
though we shall have between us more journeying than a strong horse
could encompass in days, yet in our dreams we shall be together. There
are always dreams."

"They say," whispered the girl as she trotted up the path beside him,
"that my honourable father knows how to reconcile the opposing
principles of the _ying_ and the _yang_, that he can foretell the future
and see the hidden metal which lives deep in the hearts of the
mountains. They say that he has control over the spirits of the upper
air, and that each night, when he retires to his room with his books, he
travels far on the sure back of a moonbeam. I do not know much of such
things, but I shall try to learn his arts, whereby a man may ride on a
moonbeam from place to place."

"Why should you do this?" Ming So demanded. "Only two or maybe three
days past I was learning in school that chapter of the works of the
Master, Confucius, which tells us that _study of the supernatural is
harmful._ How can your honourable father teach us these words of the
Master and then, each night, ride on the back of a moonbeam? A coat
cannot be both black and white, nor ground both wet and dry at once."

"Yes--a coat may be made of two kinds of cloth," she replied, "and
ground may be damp in one place, wet in another, and dry in a third. But
it does not matter: I _know_ that my honourable father can do these
things, and I shall strive to learn from him how they may be done."

"Why?" insisted the boy. "Why do what the Master says is dangerous?"

"And have you known so little of women that you do not understand? I
shall learn in order that I, too, may pass in the night over the silver
and black fields of the sleeping earth towards the city where you also
will be slumbering. I shall come to you when you do not expect it." She
looked up at him with a sudden fear. "You do not _really_ mind, do you?
I will only do it if you wish it, for I am to be your wife, and I would
not wish to disobey my husband."

"I? I mind your travels on a moonbeam? Oh, no; for I do not believe all
these tales of strange magic. Such things do not truly happen. Men talk,
and then women talk, and a tale is born. You may do as you will, little
one. But remember that, if my mother makes you work too hard, you can
always run away and come to me in the city. I shall soon be a great man,
so that there will be much space in my house. And my mother keeps her
money hidden in the bottom drawer of the medicine-cupboard, in a package
on which is written 'Powdered Snakeskin.' You have only to take what you
need for the journey, and, when you come, I will send back to my mother
the money which you have taken."

"But I have seen my father riding on a moonbeam," persisted Pai Mei.

"It was a cloud of an unusual shape, which the gods sent to deceive
you," replied Ming So. "Now, do you understand what you are to do if my
mother treats you ill?"

The girl nodded. The path up which they were climbing wound between the
great eucalyptus-trees and rank undergrowth towards the summit of the
hill. Below, to one turning back, the village of Ha Foo might be seen
nestling amongst the green like a dusty red flower. In front of them a
single tall pagoda pointed immovably at the sky, and even now, at this
distance, the two children could hear faintly the tinkle of the
wind-bells suspended from the eaves of this pagoda.

"We shall soon reach there," Ming So told her. "Then we shall kneel
before the golden image of the enlightened Buddha, asking for a blessing
on our promise to each other."

"Can the Buddha really help?" she asked. Then she said nothing more for
a while. Deep in the forest on either hand could be heard rustlings,
movings, in the gloom beneath the great trees, and Pai Mei was just a
little frightened. When Ah So had gone away with his uncle to the city,
she would have to walk up this path alone, to kneel alone before the
golden Buddha and watch the strange face above her, wreathed in the
smoke of incense.

"It was not a cloud," she said suddenly. "Because I saw him move to a
more comfortable position, and you could not do that on a cloud. It was
a moonbeam."

But now further discussion was forgotten, for they had emerged into the
public courtyard. A yellow-robed priest with shaven head glanced
incuriously at the two children as they crossed the courtyard and
entered the shine.

The long, low room was empty save for these two and the great golden
presence of the image. Up the pink wood pillars writhed carven dragons
whose heads were lost in the canopy of drifting smoke. Before the image
were set small bowls of rice, and a tray of smouldering powder in a long
train, arranged like one of the intricate Chinese characters on the seal
of Pai Kwat, the schoolmaster... The two knelt. From behind them a
breath of wind blew, cooling the back of the neck. Somewhere in the
interior of the building a voice sounded faintly, reciting a chapter
from the Diamond Sutra.

_"To be and yet not to be,"_ intoned the hidden voice.

_"To be and yet not to be, Together, at the same time, Endlessly. To be
and yet not to be..."_

Pai Mei sobbed quietly as she knelt there. Ming So was reflecting that,
in the city, there would be many other things to do besides kneeling
before images of Buddha. And, after all, these religious ceremonies were
meant for women rather than for men...

They each dropped a copper _cash_ into the great bronze bowl at the
entrance of the shrine.

"I shall come here often," said the girl. "It is very lonely on the path
climbing through the forest, but I shall come."

"They say that a man may make, in the city, enough money in a single
week to live in Ha Foo for a whole year," said Ming So. "I shall soon be
very rich."

"You will not forget me?" she whispered. "In the city there are many
strange women, much more beautiful women than I, and it is very easy for
a man to forget what he has promised."

"I shall not forget. Of course I shall not forget," he cried scornfully.
"I have promised. And, besides, these strange women of whom you have
been speaking are doubtless a great expense, and I desire to make and
save money rapidly. No, assuredly you may rest content about that. Women
are all very well in their place, but when a man sets out to become
rich..."

But Pai Mei was not listening at all. In imagination she was climbing on
a moonbeam which would shortly deliver her, breathless from the speed of
its motion, in a room in the city where Ming So would be sitting talking
to a strange woman. And then...



CHAPTER VII BORROWED PHILOSOPHY OF A POET


"DURING my own youth," said the voice of Uncle Tung Lai Luk from the
closed carrying-chair, "I could walk for many miles without becoming
tired. To rise in the morning with the punctual birds, to work while
light lasts, and then to sleep the sound, dreamless sleep of a healthy
boy--that was the ancient way. Now our youth has apparently become so
effeminate that a walk like this, beside my chair, brings fatigue before
twenty _li_ have been covered. What would you, Ming? That I should
descend from my chair into the rain and give my place to you? Are there
not bearers for your meagre luggage? Have you not the burden only of
your own body?" The voice died away in grumblings. It seemed a less
jolly uncle who now spoke to the boy from the comparative comfort behind
those green blinds of oiled cloth.

"I did not complain, Uncle Tung," said the boy. "I said that I was
tired--I did not complain. And as for your descending from the chair, quite
apart from the question of the rain, I think that would be foolish,
since it is improbable that you could walk so fast or so far as these
coolies who bear your chair on their shoulders, or even as I, who plod
along beside you in the mud."

From within the closed chair came the sound of a match being struck,
then a wisp of smoke from a cigarette.

"Let us hear no more, then, of this tiredness of yours," said his uncle.
"It is foolish to repine over things that are past, and our journey, or
this part of it, is almost over. Through the holes in the front blind I
can already see the red roofs of Ch'ang Sui, and at Ch'ang Sui a boat
awaits us. Then your shoe-leather will have less work to do. Three days
lying on your back in a boat, with nothing whatever to occupy you. Is
that more to your taste?"

"I do not know," answered the boy, "until I have experienced the leisure
of which you speak. Never in my life have I lain on my back for three
days, and I cannot foretell what my feelings will be. Is the country
through which we shall pass on this boat as interesting as the country
at Ha Foo? Are there hills, valleys, and rice-fields, waterfalls and
bridges?" He was remembering his expeditions with Pai Mei, who was now
presumably labouring with his mother in the fields.

"All country is interesting, if a man has not seen it before and is
prepared to make the effort needful in order to be interested," said
Tung Lai Luk. "But I think that the rain has stopped. The coolies may
roll up the blinds again."

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

The river at Ch'ang Sui offers to the uninitiated little promise of
navigation. The stream runs purling over rapids on one side of the
river, while on the other a deeper stretch of water laps against the
primitive bamboo wharfs as if it merely needed a flood to sweep away
those flimsy structures down towards the distant sea. But when the
Spring rains have passed and the river has sunk again into comparative
tranquillity, passage boats come and go, and the little village of
Ch'ang Sui wakes from sleep, to become the centre of transport for the
whole province.

"The river is very swift," said Ming So, regarding it. "And although I
can understand how one may go down the river, how is it possible to
return?"

"It requires many men and much rope to pull a boat up the swifter
portions of the river," agreed his uncle, as he stepped aboard. "But
ours is the easier journey. It merely needs a watchful steersman. Nature
does the rest, like the good servant she is. Come: bestow your goods
here, under this rattan awning. The crew sleep under that other awning
in the bows. You may be thankful, my nephew, that you are not travelling
on a public boat, where space is limited and the most ordinary privacies
are neglected. I have hired this boat because I cannot endure to have
strangers treading on my feet and interfering with my comforts. That is
the reward of toil, my nephew: to have enough money to ensure privacy,
at all events. See--the boat-master is casting off the straw ropes
which hold us to the wharf. The journey is about to begin."

He sat down, cross-legged, on the mat. The bow of the boat swung out
into the stream, then round, and when a last push had been given from
the bank, the view of the red roofs and flimsy wharfs of the little
village of Ch'ang Sui fell astern. The steersman, feet braced on the
deck, manoeuvred his great steering-oar: the chatter of the wharf died
away, to be succeeded by the continuous rustle of waters past the hull
and the occasional roar of shallow water over rocks. A bend in the river
obscured Ch'ang Sui. On each side stretched green forest, hills, mighty
trees, and ever the boat seemed to shoot down through the smoother,
deeper water, avoiding the rock as by a miracle.

"I still marvel," said Ming So, "at the exceeding swiftness of the
stream. Surely men cannot haul a boat up-river against the force of the
current?"

"They can do so. Obviously they do not build a new boat every time they
desire to go down! But if I had not come up-river myself, I should have
been reluctant to believe in the possibility of it." Tung Lai Luk
laughed. "You remind me of that poem of Li Tai Po. I trust that you have
at least heard of Li Tai Po?"

"His name I know--of his fame I am regrettably ignorant, my uncle.
What was this poem? Pai Kwat used to read poems to us at school, but I
never remember having heard one written by this Li Tai Po."

"His poem--and he was a very famous poet--was written to the women
of Pa, a village on the rapid head-waters of just such a river as this.
It runs something thus: 'To the women of Pa. At Pa the river runs
exceedingly swiftly, so that a boat travels a thousand _li_ in a few
days. How fortunate it is, O, women of Pa, that your husbands return to
you upstream!'"

"That is a fine-sounding poem," agreed the boy. "But I do not wholly
appreciate the meaning which it must possess. Why was Li Tai Po glad
that the husbands of the women of Pa had to return upstream?"

His uncle laughed again. "Li Tai Po was a man, like the rest of us, I
suppose. He wrote the poem at Pa. There, no doubt, he found charming
women--poets always find charming women. And presumably the husbands
of these women were absent, on business, down the river. They would have
to return, therefore, upstream, and the journey upstream was long and
slow. So the poet Li Tai Po, writing his poems at Pa, would have the
longer time in which to console those wives for the absence of their
husbands--a very pleasant pastime, as all who have tried it with a
pretty woman will tell you."

"But, uncle, I still do not wholly understand. For if these women were
married, surely Li Tai Po would have nothing to do with them? And a good
woman would have nothing to do with a man who was not her husband, even
if he was a very famous poet. So you see..."

"Oh, foolish boy! Truly the Master said, _'The careful people of the
villages are the thieves of virtue.'_ For you, coming from Ha Foo, think
that people do always what they should, not what they desire. Thus you
may steal virtue for yourself, at the expense of those men, more men
than you, who let the maxims of sages be conveniently forgotten, who put
discretion behind them, when a bright eye calls, who willingly barter a
little of your village approval for a night with a village girl whose
husband is absent."

The boy brooded for a while, watching the bright sequence of the passing
landscape. Then he said: "No doubt such are the habits of poets. But
neither you nor I write poetry. Therefore no such excuse lies available
for us."

"You have much to learn, my nephew. Now lie on your back on the matting
and go to sleep, or at any rate cease your chatter, for I am tired." He
arranged himself in comfort and closed his eyes. "Man is the servant not
so much of his virtues as of his eyesight, where a pretty girl is
concerned," he observed finally.



CHAPTER VIII BOTTOM, THOU ART TRANSLATED


MING SO suddenly woke up in the night and lay perfectly still in his
blanket. For a moment he imagined himself back at his mother's house in
Ha Foo, and half listened for the familiar rustle of the night wind in
the clump of bamboos beside the gate. But his ears now caught a very
different rustle--the sound of silk rubbing on silk. Then a voice
spoke on the deck near him--a woman's voice.

"There are many mouths to be fed in the village, and little wherewith to
feed them. Therefore, hearing of your arrival at the village of Seung
So, I told my friend here of the previous business which I did with you
a year past, suggesting that you might be willing to take into your own
rich household one of these mouths. Her father has two sons and seven
daughters."

"Let her father speak for himself," said the voice of Tung Lai Luk. "For
always it is best, in affairs of this sort, to deal directly between
principals. Not that I shall forget that you have performed the
introduction. Let him speak for himself."

"I am Yang Foo, a man of this village of Seung So," said a third voice,
on the invitation, and the voice was the voice of an old man. "I have
two sons and seven daughters, as has been said. Last year, as you must
know, our crops were almost destroyed by blight, and all the weaving
which has been from the immemorial past the duty of our women in the
winter was finished a moon ago. Yet even that has brought a poor price
in the market, and I have left but little money wherewith I may buy rice
for myself and my family."

"Fortune is unkind," agreed Tung Lai Luk. _"But it is only in winter
that we know the pine and the cypress to be evergreens."

"Then," the old man proceeded, "I have but one course open to me. Girls
are of use in the winter weaving, but if there is no more of that
weaving to be done, the head of a family becomes painfully aware that
they have mouths, eating, eating, unproductively. Now a rich man like
yourself can employ usefully in his house more women than I, who am only
a poor man. A very poor man. If, in return for my daughter here, I might
receive sufficient money to keep myself and my family until the harvest..."

"It is a pity that you did not come in daylight," said Tung Lai Luk.
"But, since we arrived at dusk and leave at dawn, I suppose such a thing
would have been impossible. Very well, man has made lanterns where the
miserly gods refuse daylight. So let us look at this girl of yours." An
arrow of light shot under the awning where Ming So lay, as a lantern was
moved. "Why, but she is an ill-favoured little thing!" Tung complained.
"Even had your harvest been better, I doubt greatly whether you would
have succeeded in finding the girl a husband. Though a man be concerned
almost wholly with the cultivation of the fields, he would, I imagine,
prefer to have a comely companion when those labours are over and he
returns to the home roof-tree. But this daughter of yours..."

"My daughter is as her mother bore her," said the quavering voice. "I
have heard, too, from my friends, that they consider her not
unbeautiful. Nay, it is not seemly thus to belittle her in order to
bring down the price. Come--there is no need to adopt commercial
methods with me. I am her father, and a daughter is not a thing to be
haggled and bargained over. Make me your offer, and, if it be
reasonable, good. If not, good also. The gods have taken away our
food--let the gods provide other food. The responsibility is theirs."

The woman's voice broke in. "Before you name prices," she said, "let us
decide what proportion of this price I shall receive. For I have gone to
much trouble and loss of time in order thus to arrange a meeting between
you. What proportion?"

"Of every five _cash_, you shall have one and her father four," said
Tung Lai Luk. "Now, is that to your liking?"

"It will serve, though it is not generous," the woman returned.

"Good. Now, I will make an offer. As I have said, she is not of the
marrying sort, and it will be difficult to find her a husband when she
gets too old to be useful to me. Still, we may find occupations for her
which do not too much depend on beauty. Say a hundred and fifty
dollars."

"You would not get a girl like that, a strong, fine girl, for less than
five hundred dollars," retorted her father. "And you offer me a hundred
and fifty! Come--there is no use in discoursing further. I have been
insulted. It is the price of but the foot of a girl, not of her whole
body. Come: we will go."

There was the sound of people rising to their feet. Then the voice of
the boy's uncle said soothingly: "Nay--be not over-hasty. Maybe I have
overlooked some virtue in the girl. Sit down again." The voices fell to
a murmur.

Ming So was still tired, after his walk of the morning, and when he next
woke there was silence on the boat, except for the ripple of the still
moving water where it eddied past the piles of the bamboo pier and
rustled along the planking of the stationary boat. Then his ears
detected another sound, too--the sound of dry, voiceless sobbing from
the deck beside him.

The boy lay for a while listening to these sounds. In the sky, as he saw
it through the open end of the rattan awning, a faint promise of dawn
showed. In another hour the journey would begin again. Why sacrifice
that hour's sleep because some unhappy person saw fit to weep in that
particularly irritatingly silent way just beside him?

"Be quiet, or I will hit you!" whispered Ming So, and then withdrew his
own head under the protection of the blanket.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Dawn had drawn aside her curtains of grey-silver and the great golden
ball of day topped the hills in the distance ahead of them, down-river.
Ashore, the village was already astir. Coolies staggered with their
loads: a woman appeared for a moment at the door of a hut, charcoal
sticks in her hand. In the bows of the boat a man turned over on his
back, sighed in a long-drawn "Ai-ah!" and sat up.

Ming So also sat up, to survey the world. Uncle Tung Lai Luk snored
slightly at the rear of the shelter, where the draught was least. Rolled
in his blankets, with only the profile of his sleeping face to be seen,
he did not rouse in the boy any sentiments at all. Ming looked at his
uncle exactly as he would have looked at a pile of clothing. But,
sleeping in the entrance to the shelter, at the opposite side to the
boy, lay the arrival of last night, in a cotton wrap somewhat too small
to cover her completely. She had rolled the sides under her, so that she
resembled a cylinder, from the end of which her feet protruded. Ming So
studied these feet. They were, of course, unbound--for hat would be
the use in a labouring household of a girl crippled by foot-binding?
Strong, healthy feet they were, the toes parallel to each other,
flattened somewhat by constant walking barefoot. The toenails were
short, bent over slightly towards the sole of the foot, and dirty.

She must be about fifteen, Ming decided: much older than Pai Mei, his
sweetheart. Her flat little face looked unseeingly at the roof, for she
was still asleep. Beside her, in a small bundle tied with a cloth strip,
lay what he imagined were all her worldly goods. The girl's mouth was
slightly open, and between the rather thick lips the boy could see part
of a strong white set of teeth.

The crew were moving now. A rope was cast off. Someone shouted, and the
steersman clambered round on the gunwale of the boat, leaning on their
rattan shelter, as he made his way to the stern. At the sound of his
passage the girl worked as Ming watched her.

He had never seen a girl wake up before. Of course, there was that time
when Mei had gone to sleep at the edge of the paddy-field, in the long
grass, and he had awakened her with a splash of cold water. But, then,
that did not really count. Mei's awakening had been too sudden to
compare with this.

The strange girl opened her eyes a little way, so little that he was not
sure if she had opened them at all, then shut them again. A sort of
wriggle passed down the grey cylinder in which she lay, and she made an
effort to draw her feet into the warmth within. But so tightly was the
cloth rolled about her that when she drew up her knees the encircling
cloth cylinder followed. She opened her eyes again, wider this time. A
puzzled expression crossed her face, and she looked round her with
apparent interest. Then she sat up and unrolled herself in one movement,
sitting in her cotton covering with her feet drawn under her, fully
dressed.

_"T'so shan!"_ said Ming So, in the universal greeting whereby men of
every race assure each other that the morning, at all events, is good,
whatever may be expected of the rest of the day. "Have you eaten your
rice?" For this latter question is also a politeness--however obvious
the truthful answer may be. But somehow the very word "rice" reminded
the girl of those economic reasons which had led to her being seated on
the deck of a strange boat, now racing downstream, instead of facing an
inadequate stock of food and an irate mother in her own house. She
remembered the transaction of last night, and the separation from her
parents and family which it implied. At any rate, Ming So concluded that
this was so, since she began to cry again, softly, silently.

He rapidly put on the outer clothing which one discards on going to bed,
folded his blankets in a neat pile, and went forward where the cook was
engaged in coaxing a small charcoal brazier into a flame. As he went
forward the boy made a slight detour and spat expressively into the
river below. Why should women always be crying? He spat again, then went
on towards the cooking.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Breakfast in China is not an early meal, to be sniffed at before the
appetite has properly grown to breakfast-point. It was, perhaps,
half-past nine when Ming returned to the awning in the stern of the
boat. He found it easy to sit, as he had been doing, in the bows and
watch the wheeling landscape approach, pass, and fall astern of them, to
gaze over the side at the undulating water and see in its turbid depths
the occasional gleam of a polished rock over or past which the boat shot
miraculously. And only the familiar smell of cooked food, which reached
him on a sudden, erratic breath of wind, recalled him to appetite and
its gratification.

The other two passengers were now sitting opposite to each other on the
deck under the awning, eating. He noticed for the first time that his
uncle's jaws and throat moved convulsively, and that as they did so they
emitted a milder version of the noise which is made by a cow--a
squishing, propelling noise. As he sat down and took from the girl the
bowl containing his own ration of rice, he was displeased to find that
his own eating, too, was not exactly silent. Further, the girl as well
was making these faint, unpleasant sounds, which he had now noticed for
the first time, as she ate her own rice. This amused the boy at the same
time that it annoyed him, but he took longer than usual in finishing his
first bowl, in the effort to achieve silence, only to discover that his
uncle had, by then, removed to his own bowl the best of the dainties
which lay in the steaming dish on the deck between them, for consumption
and appreciation when the first bowl of rice should have dulled the edge
of appetite.

"You sleep well?" Uncle Tung Lai Luk asked kindly.

"Oh, yes, uncle, except that early this morning I was awakened by
strange noises from this girl. I was compelled to tell her to be quiet
before I could recatch my sleep."

"We must excuse her," said his uncle. "She is a little sad just now,
because she, too, is leaving her home to experience the unknown joys of
the city. We must excuse her--she will in time suppress these childish
expressions of sorrow and learn that women should only be noticeable
when men desire to notice them."

Ming So stared at the girl and the girl stared in return at Ming So.
Now, with the warmth of the rice in her stomach, she was apparently
feeling far from depressed, for a smile flickered near he eyes, only to
vanish again when she saw that Tung Lai Luk was watching her. Then the
smile vanished, to be replaced by a look of vacancy which was her only
alternative to the hatred which she really felt. But Ming So did not
know this: he only saw her smile and then look vacant, so that he
sniffed and turned up his nose while with facile chopsticks he rescued
such dainties as his uncle had not already taken.

"The day promises to be fine," said the boy. "I hope that the rains are
really over now, for I much doubt if this awning would keep out very
much of the water. What do you think yourself, uncle?"

"I think as you appear to do," replied the other. "Yes, a boat such as
this is a sore trial when the rain pours down through the awning, and
everything is wet."

"Is there no space below this deck, uncle?"

"No. In any case, the small space below is full of merchandise. You do
not imagine that I could afford to engage a boat like this just to
transport myself--and you? Oh, no; before we arrived at Ch'ang Sui the
boat had been filled with the products of the country. The profit on
sales may possibly recoup me for some small part of the expense."

Ming So did not reply to this. He was reflecting that his uncle was not,
in the world's sense, generous. And, that being so, he was the more
puzzled to explain such of last night's half-heard conversation as he
could now recollect. If Uncle Tung was not generous, why had he
purchased this girl from her destitute parents for so very large a sum
of money? Uncle Tung must have a very large staff of servants at his
house in the city, if he could thus add one to their number at a
moment's notice...

Later, as the boy sat again in the bows watching the water in front of
the boat, he heard the girl come and sit down beside him. He continued
gazing in front of him, waiting for her to speak, as he knew all women
did if you left them to themselves, and after a little while she did
begin, in a soft, wavering voice which was new to him.

_"Jade rivers in Sz'chuen fall Down hills the hue of spring: At dawn and
sunset Huang's tears Fell too, remembering."_

Her voice ceased, and, when he looked round at her, she had dropped her
eyes again to the turbid waters of the river.

"But that is great poetry," said the boy. "Such poetry as Pai Kwat, our
honourable teacher, used to recite to us in the hours of school." There
was no reply, so he went on: "And it is suitable poetry, too, for we
move on a river flowing between banks of brilliant green, and yet, this
morning, you wept. How is it that you know by heart poetry to suit your
momentary mood?"

"I know much of the work of our great poets," answered the girl's soft
voice. "My mother, who came of a noble family, has often recited old
poetry to me, and I have not forgotten it. Do you, then, like poetry?"

"Of course I like poetry. Are there any who do not, except those the
doors of whose hearts are closed to beauty?" He was a little proud of
that sentence. "Of all the classes of men in the State, the poet is most
highly honoured. But I am surprised at your knowledge of poetry, for I
seem to remember a conversation in the night, when everyone thought that
I slept, with regard to the price of a girl who, my uncle said, was
ill-favoured. I did not, therefore, expect to find her equipped better
for revelry in a prince's court, for the wearing of the _rainbow skirt
and feather jacket_, than for the exercise of the more domestic
virtues." Everyone should recognise that quotation. It came from the
same poem--Po Chu-I's "Everlasting Wrong." And sure enough, at the
words she smiled as she looked at him.

"So you, too, know the 'Everlasting Wrong,' do you? In my house only my
mother and I ever talked of these things: my father considered it more
praiseworthy to speak of the badness of the crops, and my two brothers
also spoke only of the things concerning the farm. So my father..."

"I see," said the boy. "It is sad to find a family in which poetry is
unappreciated. For, indeed, if we do not admire the excellences of our
ancestors, how shall we perfect ourselves?" He was, quite consciously,
quoting his teacher, Pai Kwat, word for word. But she need not know
this. "What is your name?"

"The only name my parents gave me is Yang Fei."

"But," the boy cried. "Yang Kuei-fei was the name of the princess whom
the Emperor Huang mourned in the very poem which you have just been
reciting--the 'Everlasting Wrong.' That is a peculiar thing to happen
to you. I think I ought to call you Kuei-fei."

"You seem," said the girl, "both to know and to understand more than a
boy of your age might be expected to know and understand. How comes it
that you know not only the words of the poems which have been written,
but also the stories which made the poetry?"

"My teacher, the honourable Pai Kwat, is a great man. Not only was he
skilled in literature, but they said, also, that he held communion with
the spirits and could transport himself from place to place on a
moonbeam. I have learned a little from him."

"As to travelling on a moonbeam I dare not venture an opinion, for a
moonbeam is a very insecure sort of a vehicle. But as to your teacher's
ability with brush and bamboo tablet, I judge from your own words. I
judge from your words that he was a man who stood out above his lesser
fellows." Her conversation was becoming animated, now that she had
overcome her first shyness. "And are you, too, going with _him_"--she
nodded her head towards the stern--"to the city?"

"That is my present intention," the boy replied. "It appears that he is
in need of men of honesty and brains. So..."

She laughed. _"A man must despise himself before others will,"_ she
said. "But, while you are doubtless sitting in an office dealing with
large sums of money, I shall be engaged in the menial duties of his
house, under his wife's keen eye. How, then, may we talk again of these
subjects?"

"Time and opportunity may be commanded," answered the boy sententiously.
"And the study of literature, being the highest and noblest of the arts,
takes precedence over other more worldly considerations. So I shall
await the future with confidence. But will you have the kindness to
repeat again the whole of the 'Everlasting Wrong' of Po Chu-I? How does
it begin?" He began reciting with particular care.

"_The Emperor loved love: he sought
Through all his wide domain
For one whose lightest glance could wreck
An empire--but in vain._"

"Who was the woman of whom it used to be said that her glance could wreck
an empire?"

The girl busied herself picking to pieces a fragment of rope which lay
on the deck. "That was Madame Li, the concubine of the Emperor Han
Wu-ti. She said, one day, 'One of my glances would subvert a city, two
an empire.' So the Emperor sent her away from his side. It is not wise
to boast." She continued, in her soft voice:

_"Yang Kuei-fei, secluded, Her childhood's days had spent: A woman now,
she nothing knows Of Love's embarrassment..."_

When she had finished, the boy said: "You say poetry beautifully, much
better than Pai Kwat, my teacher. Oh, but look, Kuei-fei, what fish your
bait has caught."

For the crew of four, excepting the steersman, had congregated behind
them. In China, poetry is recognised as the highest of the
accomplishments, and it is only necessary to begin to recite the
"Everlasting Wrong" or the "Ballad of Mulan" to gather a crowd at any
street corner.

"Go away!" cried Ming So. "The entertainment is over."

"Can she say the 'Ballad of Mulan?'" demanded the nearest man.

"Certainly she can, O seeker-after-something-for-nothing, but she will
not. Is this a place of public entertainment? Go, I tell you!" His uncle
had chartered the boat, and therefore his nephew, Ming So, was a person
of some small importance for the moment. The crowd of four dispersed.
"They are unpleasant, common men," said Ming So.

"I do not think that a man who loves poetry can with justice be called
common," she returned. "But so many men listening makes me shy. I would
not have continued if I had known that they were listening to me."

"We must certainly speak more of poetry, Yang Kuei-fei."

"That is not my name. But what is yours?"

"I am Ming So, the son of Ming Cheung Wai, who _travelled to the West_
before I remember. My mother lives alone in Ha Foo with the girl Pai
Mei, to whom, when I am older and have made much money, I shall offer
the shelter of my roof."

"It is time enough to think of marriage when the hair has grown," the
girl replied. "Now you speak of a thing of which you are ignorant. I am
old enough, I, to get married. You are still an unfledged boy."

"That is as it may be," he said. "But I know that my uncle has signed a
marriage-deed for me, so what you have said is just dog's wind."

The girl tossed her head and got up. "Very well--it is dog's wind, if
you say that it is dog's wind. But I shall spend several happy moments,
now, thinking of what you do not know about marriage!" She left him
wondering what she meant.



CHAPTER IX OARS IN THE TWILIGHT


ONE night remained. Towards noon on the next day it was hoped that boat,
cargo, and passengers would safely reach the city of Kwei Sek at the
mouth of the river. Already the crew could be heard debating in
increasingly strident tones the various opportunities for enjoyment or
duty which stood outside the door of the coming day. Ming So was full of
excitement. Only the girl Yang Fei sat silent on the mat in the stern of
the boat, taking no part in these rejoicings.

Then, as they crept towards the night's rest at another, the last little
village, a strange craft put off from a creek some two _li_ above their
evening destination. The sun had sunk half an hour ago, and twilight
made the pale shadows of reeds into lances, the cry of an owl into the
shriek of a lost soul. The strange boat, propelled on the now broader
surface of the river by eight oars, had twice the speed of the
cargo-boat, so that it was but a few minutes before she was alongside.
The crews ceased rowing, and three men, attended by a fourth carrying a
lantern, stepped on board. Their leader, his size exaggerated by the
gleams of the lamp in the fast-departing twilight, came towards the
stern with another man.

"Who is master here?" he demanded of Uncle Tung Lai Luk. "Is this your
boat?"

"I am but a humble passenger of this boat, which belongs to a rich man
who is to join us, I was told, at the village which we had hoped to
reach to-night, but for this doubtless unavoidable delay," Tung replied
modestly. "To what fortunate circumstance do we owe the pleasure of your
visit?" And saying this, he must have completely frustrated his
intention of appearing a man of small account, for the accent in which
he spoke and a faint suspicion of irritation in his voice seemingly told
the stranger precisely those things which Uncle Tung Lai Luk had not
desired the stranger to know.

"Truth is not a characteristic of merchants," said the newcomer with a
laugh. "This is clearly your boat. And, were it not for the
inconvenience of being compelled to dispose of the cargo, we should take
away your boat also. As it is, we shall take only you. Your family will
be told, by those whom we leave here, that ten thousand dollars--a
mere flea-bite to a man who is the possessor of so cultured a voice--will
procure your freedom, and that it will be wise if your family
brings here this money at sunset, after one moon has passed from to-day,
since, if they omit this simple precaution, certain grosser and perhaps
more decorative portions of your anatomy will be sacrificed to the God
of Wealth before we let you go. I trust that you are married? For a wife
is so sweetly appreciative of the personal appearance and abilities of
her husband."

"This is an outrage!" began the merchant, but the other cut him short
with a curt word of command. Tung Lai Luk was dragged to his feet. To
Ming So his uncle's face seemed the colour of antique paper as he stood
here, but only the light of the lantern lit this uncle's face, and Ming
was too surprised to feel either fear or anger. His brain dully told him
that these must be the river pirates of whose existence rumours had
occasionally reached Ha Foo from travellers, but his attention was
engaged also by the fact that in his lap, as he sat there on the deck,
fell something small and hard--a cylinder some three inches long. As
his uncle followed without further useless protest over the side of the
boat, Ming realised that the object which he held in his hand was his
uncle's _chop_--the seal which stamps the owner's name at the bottom
of a document, and which is as recognisable to those who deal with him
as is a European signature. Tung Lai Luk had contrived to supply his
nephew not only with proof of his identity, so that he might if
necessary arrange for the ransom, but also with authority to act for his
uncle, who must therefore trust him somewhat more than he trusted some
at least of his present captors...

The sound of the raiders' oars died away; the boat, without any further
orders, again took up her course for the night's anchorage, and a high
patter of comment came from the crew. Yang Fei had said nothing, so the
boy spoke to her.

"I was not aware that the waterways of our Republic were so inadequately
guarded and policed as seems to be the case," he said. "It is terrible
that a prominent citizen like my uncle should not be able to travel in
safety, and that he should be called upon, quite illegally, to make a
huge payment for his freedom."

Yang Fei laughed. "I do not care," she said. "To one so poor as myself
or any other member of my family these robbers are harmless, since we
have nothing to lose. But your uncle, and men like him, have taken our
money, and so it is fitting that some of our money should be taken from
him. I wish that it could be given back to us."

"But that is wrong," protested the boy. "If, as you say, my uncle and
men like him have gained money at the expense of your family, that was
by fair trade. This is mere robbery, and I am surprised to hear your
attempt to excuse it."

"Morality is for the rich," she said, and was silent.

The boy reflected on his future course of action. He felt very much
alone now, without the guiding hand and worldly advice of his mother,
however cynical she might be, and without the rather tarnished ideals of
hi uncle. What had they meant, those men, to do with him? "Certain
grosser and more decorative portions" of uncle Tung Lai Luk--tales of
cropped ears and fingers came back to the boy. That could not possibly
be allowed to happen. He would have to get his aunt, the honourable Tung
Nan Tsz, to collect the sum of money as soon as he reached the city of
Kwei Sek. There would be no time to waste. After all, though his uncle
had given him the _chop_, a boy of thirteen could hardly hope to take
the initiative in collecting so huge a sum for a ransom. Then this girl,
Yang Fei. He bitterly resented her attitude, with the bitterness of the
lonely and helpless. Contrary to all the basic principles of justice as
expounded by the wise men who had compiled the classics of China, to the
views of his teacher, Pai Kwat... Little Pai Mei would never have said
a thing like that. She was too sensible. Or was she? Women are always an
incalculable quantity, he reflected.

This conclusion was confirmed when, tied up at the anchorage for the
last night's halt, the boat swung gently on the water and Ming returned
to the bamboo shelter where the evening meal awaited him in the dim
light of the swinging lantern. For the girl Yang Fei now waited on him
with an attention which was capable of only one explanation--an
explanation which was at once flattering and perturbing. And Ming, as he
went to sleep that evening lying in his blanket at her side in the
shelter, mused further on women and what they meant to him. He found the
subject disquieting, the more so since Yang Fei, at her side of the
shelter, was clearly not asleep, for every now and then he could hear a
little smothered laugh, as if she had thought of something very funny
indeed. But youth takes no long heed of disquiet when there is no light
anywhere, and soon he was dreaming happily of his sweetheart Pai Mei
standing at his side, knee-deep in the pool below the waterfall in the
forest at Ha Foo, and in his dream the slanting moonlight fell clear of
the high trees and touched her olive skin to the semblance of a velvet
intimacy...



CHAPTER X "THE HAPPY HEART"


JUST after noon of the next day the boat was tied up to the great stone
wharf in the city of Kwei Sek. The usual crowd of ricksha coolies and
labourers rapidly assembled, sensing work to be had for the asking. But
Ming So, very much on his dignity, instructed the master of the boat to
remain at the wharf until further orders.

"You will keep this ill-mannered mob from trespassing on the boat which
my unfortunate uncle has hired," he said. "As soon as I have consulted
with the family, further orders will be sent to you. Until that time, do
nothing. That should not be a difficult task for you." And with this
parting shaft he stepped ashore, carrying in the black, shiny box all
his belongings. He bore the box himself, for he dared not risk a refusal
to obey orders on the part of any of the crew, and, in any case, the box
was light. He hailed two rickshas.

"You will ride after me," he told Yang Fei, and sat down.

"Where to?" enquired the runner, and for a moment Ming So's heart fell.
Then he took the risk.

"Where to? O unobservant! Why to the house of Tung Lai Luk, and be quick
about it."

The rickshas moved off, and the boy concluded with a sigh of relief that
apparently his uncle was well enough known locally to make the mention
of his address unnecessary. Still, he wished that he had possessed the
forethought to enquire before landing. Uncle Tung Lai Luk's remaining
luggage--he had only taken a single suitcase with him into his
unfortunate and enforced exile--was in the second ricksha with Yang
Fei. The boy leaned back in his seat and contemplated the city as if he,
like his uncle, owned some considerable part of it. But his dignity was
troubled by certain guffaws which the two ricksha coolies exchanged,
crying to each other as they pad-padded along the road: "Tung Lai Luk!
Hai-ya! The little ones go to Tung Lai Luk's house. Ha-ha!" And Ming So
could not quite understand the reason for this amusement.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

The two rickshas drew up before a four-storey house in one of the
narrower streets, and the boy, with just enough delay to make sure that
the cause of the halt was their arrival at their destination, and no
other, stepped out. It would never have done to step out of the ricksha
if the runners had stopped for a traffic regulation, or from shortness
of breath. It would look foolish to do so, after trading on their
knowledge of the whereabouts of his uncle's house...

The house was large in comparison with the others in the street, but he
noticed that its brass scroll-work entrance was copied, farther down the
street, by several other apparently similar establishments. He began to
be consumed by a curiosity as to the precise nature of his uncle's
trade.

In answer to his call, a small serving-maid appeared at the door. Behind
her a porter lounged in a wicker chair.

"I wish to see the honourable wife of Tung Lai Luk," said Ming So, and
the child smiled.

"Many have wished that," she returned, "but seldom without advancing a
reason."

"I am Tung's nephew," he told her. "Now, lead on."

She shrugged her shoulders, but led on. There were three flights of
stairs and one corridor to traverse before a door opened and he entered
the room beyond with Yang Fei.

"This boy says that he is your nephew," the small maid said. "Shall I
show him out again, and tell the porter to add to his speed?"

"But why...? Where is the honourable Tung?"

The woman sitting at the far side of the room rose and came towards him.
Ming was surprised to see a much younger woman than he had expected. Of
middle height, as a Chinese girl should be, she had the high cheek-bones
of the Northern Manchu, while her movements, sudden and graceful,
betokened Southern blood as well. How had his far-from-young uncle
managed to marry this radiant being? The boy noted the touch of
rice-powder which accentuated the redness of her lips, the perfect
blackness of her "moth's eyebrows," the lazy yet fiery glow of her dark
eyes. She raised her arm with a flash of embroideries in the light from
the windows in the roof. "Where is he?" she demanded, her forefinger
threatening him.

Ming So recoiled a step before her. Then he took from an inner pocket
the _chop_ which his uncle had dropped in his lap as the pirates had led
him away. He removed the small cap, pushed up the red ink-pad inside the
tube with his finger, and then, pressing the _chop_ itself on to the
pad, withdrew it and made, on the palm of his small hand, the impression
which the _chop_ bore. "Tung," she read, as the boy held up his palm for
her to see. "That is the _chop_ of the honourable Tung, my husband.
Where is he, and how did you come to have possession of that _chop_?"

"May I sit down?" Ming So asked. "I thank you. Events over which neither
I nor my unhappy uncle had any control have led, I greatly fear, to a
long and possibly expensive separation of husband and wife. Last night,
just before we reached our evening anchorage..."

When he had finished, he laid the _chop_ on the table. "It is for you to
say what should be done," he told her. "For my part, I do not like the
threat of the man to remove certain ornamental portions of my uncle. I
think that the man meant this threat seriously, and I advise payment, to
avoid the greater evil which would otherwise befall him."

"Ten thousand dollars!" the woman shrieked. "And how, O fool, do you
imagine that I can find ten thousand dollars, and how do you think that
we are going to continue to live here if we pay ten thousand dollars? It
is all your fault. You should have warned the crew when you saw the
other boat approaching, so that flight might have saved you from them."

"They had eight oars: we had three," Ming So replied simply. "You may be
sure that, if it had been possible, we should have escaped. But it was
not possible."

And now, as women will in such circumstances, Tung's wife wept, and Ming
So watched her weep. When the sound had subsided somewhat, he spoke
softly.

"If you are willing, my aunt, I will go and interview my uncle's
friends, so that they may advance the money which you find it impossible
to collect. For indeed it would be undutiful of us to let him suffer a
fate so disfiguring and so unpleasant to both of you. Then, further,
there is the case of this girl, whose name appears to be Yang Fei. Or so
she told me. My uncle purchased her from her impoverished family on the
way down the river. Would it not be possible to tell her again, if you
could find a buyer, and to devote the proceeds to my uncle's ransom?"

"That!" shrieked Tung's wife suddenly, out of her sobs. "That! Why, she
is worth but the smallest fraction of the immense sum which, you tell
me, we must raise. She will earn her price in a week. What did you say
that the honourable Tung Lai Luk paid for her?"

"I do not know. My uncle began by offering a hundred and fifty dollars,
but then I went to sleep and I do not know at what figure the sale was
concluded."

"You slept! Of course you slept! More than a hundred and fifty dollars?
Waste! Now go from my presence. I must think, and when I have thought I
will send for you to tell you my decision." She issued rapid
instructions to the small serving-maid. "Go now. Leave me."

Yang Fei came last, as usual.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Ming So found himself in a small room on the top floor. The room was so
small, in fact, that he was reminded of the rattan shelter on the boat.
Strangely enough, Yang Fei had apparently been allotted a similar room,
next door, which was a strange thing to contemplate where a servant was
concerned, the boy reflected. Still, if even their servants had separate
rooms, the Tung establishment must be rich enough to produce the ten
thousand dollars for the ransom without much difficulty... He disposed
his property around him and changed his coat. Then, while he was
hesitating what to do next, there came a rap at the door with the
finger-nails, and Yang Fei entered.

"Ah Ming!" she cried, and her agitation was such that he hardly realised
that her manner of address was regrettably familiar. "I have just
discovered what nature of house this is! I was standing at my door when
another girl came, followed by an old woman in black and a young man.
They all three went into the room next to mine, and after a while the
old woman came out again, carrying money, which she counted. She
fluttered the bank-notes between her fingers and then went away. I
listened, then, at the door of the room where the girl and the young man
had gone in and..." Her eyes filled with tears. "Alas, I do not know
what will become of me!"

"Shut the door first," said the boy. "This affects you, not me, but I do
not see why you should allow a draught to enter as well as yourself.
Indeed, this is a strange story which you tell me. So that is the nature
of my uncle's business, is it? Well, there are worse, and the business
will not be subject to trade depression, I imagine. But it certainly is
surprising. And you are crying now. Why?"

"I do not want to stay here," wailed the girl. "I want to go back to my
village, now, and starve."

"But starvation is painful," he aid. "No--that would be foolish. In
any case, you are hardly likely to find that much work is expected of
you so soon after your arrival here. Though I must confess that I
thought, when my uncle purchased you, that you were to be just a
serving-maid, like the child who let us in."

"Listen!" she whispered. From the next room but one came laughter, then
a girl's voice singing. "She is happy!" Suddenly the voice stopped. "Ah!
He no longer desires her to play to him. Ah Ming, this thing is bad."

The boy had got up.

"I am going to see the things which happen in this house. I shall go
downstairs and find out. You may remain here, if you wish to dry your
tears in my room rather than in your own and have you reflected that
you are lucky to have a room of your own? It is not usual, in the case
of purchased girls, of _mui-tsai_..." He went out.

The stairways were wide and hung with curtains, but Ming met nobody
until he reached the street level. Here was the entrance-hall again, and
he noticed what he had not seen before--that the brasswork could be
slid across, if required, like a barrier, by the porter who sat, or
rather lay, in the bamboo chair at the side of it. This porter winked at
Ming So.

"Well, little one, and what are you doing here? You are surely too young
to justify me in asking you which girl of our collection you are
desirous of enjoying?"

"I am the nephew of the honourable Tung Lai Luk," said Ming So, and the
porter laughed. "Therefore I have come to see what happens in this
remarkable house. Tell me, where does a man eat his rice, for I am
hungry?"

The porter laughed again.

"I have heard many times that tale of a nephew," he said. "It is a very
old tale, old as the mountains of Shansi. No, it appears that, in spite
of your age, you may be here for the same purpose as many another who
values the moment above the morning after. Which girl do you want? There
are many here, all different and all alike."

"I desire no girl. I desire to eat rice," protested the boy. "My uncle
would not be pleased if he knew that I was hungry and that his porter
lay on his back in a chair, unwilling to help. My room is on the top
floor, and its number is eighty-seven. Unless rice is brought rapidly,
there will be unpleasantness." He turned on his heel. Then, as an
afterthought, he added: "I shall require at least two bowls of rice."

As he ascended the stairs again he encountered a young man whose breath
smelled of wine.

"Yes, run upstairs if you like, little one," this man cried after him.
"You will not always be able to run so fast." And, indeed, the man who
had thus addressed Ming appeared to find some difficulty in getting
downstairs himself, for he was holding on to the rail which ran down the
opposite side of the stairs from the wall. Ming took no notice and went
on. At the top of the house he paused, for there were voices in his own
bedroom. Then he went on again and entered, to find Yang Fei standing
and talking to another girl, whose extremely bright pyjamas caught the
boy's eye at once.

"This is Tung's nephew," said Yang Fei.

"And I," said the other girl, "am called Lien Fa--The Lily. I hear
that your uncle has been captured by pirates, and that his wife hopes to
be able to pay ten thousand dollars for his release. I should have
thought her well quit of him. If I had men like that coming to see me, I
should give up business. He is fat and slow and stupid."

"It would not be right to let him suffer the forcible removal of ears,"
replied Ming So. "I cannot agree that it would be right. After all..."

"You will talk less of right when you have been here a little while
longer," said The Lily. "In Tung's establishment--which calls itself,
as you will have doubtless seen, 'The Happy Heart'--there is no room
for justice. All the bedrooms are full already. There are very few rooms
that are not bedrooms."

A knock sounded on the door, and the little serving-maid appeared.

"If this woman Yang will follow me, I will show her where she may obtain
rice and rice-bowls for you both," said the child. "Do you want yours,
Lien Fa? The girl Yang might bring it."

"Yes; take her," replied The Lily. When the door had closed again she
continued in an amused voice: "That is the only advantage of 'The Happy
Heart'--the meals are at no fixed hours. They cannot be, owning to the
nature of the business. One may eat rice whenever hunger comes--and
hunger comes at strange times to us girls. You are lucky--you can have
yours brought to you. But I did not know that Tung had a nephew. His
family must have been less fat and useless than he is. Tell me about
yourself." She sat down on the boy's bed. "Do you not wonder at the
possession of a bed like this, a big bed, instead of being compelled to
sleep on the floor? Yes, that is another advantage of 'The Happy Heart.'
Now, tell me--where did you live before you came here?"

Ming So began to lose a little of his shyness as he sat there on his own
bed with this strange girl beside him. He told her about his home in Ha
Foo, and had got as far as a disquisition on the virtues of little Pai
Mei when the girl Yang Fei returned with three bowls of rice and one of
savoury meat and vegetables, in a lacquer carrier. With her arrival,
Ming's flow of words deserted him.

"I will tell you more of these matters another day," he said. "For the
moment I am hungry, and I suggest that we should eat."

Lien Fa laughed and held out her hand for the bowl of rice.



CHAPTER XI THE BEARER OF A NOBLE NAME


EXCEPT that his sleep had been somewhat disturbed by sounds of laughter,
music, and similar noises from adjacent rooms, Ming So had passed a
comfortable night. In the light of the dawn he looked round him at the
little room, taking stock. But no sooner had he begun to reflect on "The
Happy Heart" and its occupants than instantly he remembered the
predicament of his uncle, and the necessity for action on the part of
that deplorable woman, his aunt. She had promised to send for him
yesterday to discuss what might be done about the ransom, and here was
the next morning.

He sprang to his feet and put on his outer clothing. Outside the door,
in the passage, the small servant-girl was sweeping up an assortment of
empty cigarette packets and the husks of melon-seeds.

"Where is your mistress?" the boy demanded. "I must speak with her at
once. It is most important that I should speak with her."

"The noble lady," said the child, using a very respectful title, "does
not rise until towards the middle of the hour of the Horse, when the sun
stands highest in the heavens."

"But she will rise earlier this morning--I know she will," the boy
persisted.

"She has not risen, for I came from her room a moment past, and she was
still sleeping. To rouse her would lead to much unpleasantness, for she
possesses no light hand."

In the face of this, Ming started off back to his bedroom. Life was
going to be extraordinarily dull, with nowhere but his bedroom to go
to...Yang Fei came round the corner of the passage.

"Come," she said. "Lien Fa is awake, and wants to see you. I think that
you amuse her."

"I have nothing better to do," replied Ming So, "and therefore I shall
come with you. But otherwise she should have asked me in vain. Amuse
her, indeed! It is she who amuses me."

Lien Fa was still in bed, her great black eyes regarding him over the
bed-coverings with evident pleasure.

"Here is our little talking-bird," she cried. "Come in, and tell me a
tale of your village of Ha Foo. No! You must not sit there--move the
music-box, Yang Fei. How should I entertain my visitors if you sat on my
music-box?" And, when the younger girl had moved the gramophone to the
floor, Lien Fa sat up in bed. "Come, sit here and talk to me. I like to
hear you speak--it reminds me of the time when I had two little
brothers of my own, like you."

"Are they dead, then?" asked Ming So, prepared to condole with her.

"No--I have left my family, so that I can no longer call them my
brothers. Besides, they have married and gone to other cities. They are
very respectable citizens. Open the window a little, Yang Fei--there
were many evil-smelling cigarettes smoked here last night, and I have a
small headache. Now, little one, talk."

"I cannot talk freely when so important a matter as my uncle's ransom
goes unattended to," replied the boy. "I am sad to think that his wife
is so undutiful as to sleep, to be sleeping now, when she ought to be up
and out, collecting money for my uncle's ransom."

"Is it really as innocent as it appears?" demanded Lien Fa of the
ceiling. "Is it possible that such an unsoiled mind really exists? Tell
me, little one, what did you dream of?"

"I dreamed of Pai Mei, whom I am to marry," he answered. "Again I was
walking with her up the path to the temple where we parted--again I
was leading her, that night my uncle came to Ha Foo, along the forest
path to the pool where, under the waterfall, we bathed in the
moonlight."

"Tell me," said Lien Fa suddenly, "is this Pai Mei of yours beautiful?"

"I think her so," he replied. "To me she represents woman, and I measure
others by her. How far short they fall!"

The girl lazily got out of bed. Yang Fei sat on the floor, watching her
open-mouthed as she poured water into the hand-basin and then took off
the jacket of her pyjamas, for Yang Fei was not accustomed to washing
when you were obviously not dirty.

"I am called The Lily," said Lien Fa, smiling back at Ming So over her
olive shoulder as she washed. Here was none of the undeveloped child--the
muscles rippled gently up and down her arm as she rubbed a wet cloth
over her neck. "I am called The Lily, and you measure me by your Pai
Mei! Foolish boy! Your Pai Mei will never be as beautiful as I. Look.
Will she?"

Somewhat embarrassed, the boy looked at her as she stood there in her
brilliant pyjama trousers with the wet cloth in her hand. So that was
how girls developed when they grew up, he thought.

"Pai Mei is different," he said loyally. "I do not think that she will
ever look as you look now, but I do not really wish her to resemble you.
She is different."

"Little fool!" said The Lily, and returned to her washing, mildly
amused. "You know so much of women, you do. Of Yang Fei here, for
instance. A pretty pair you would make. Yang, turn the handle of the
music-box as I showed you yesterday."

Yang Fei put on a record, inserted a needle, and wound up the
gramophone. Lien Fa completed her washing to the accomplishment of a
Chinese song which told of girls gathering reeds in the river when a
prince passed by.

"I wish a few princes would come here," said she petulantly. "I have
also some foreign records. Would you like to hear them?"

"I think if you do not mind, that I will return to my own room. I have
just remembered that I have to write a letter to my honourable mother,
and another letter as well."

"To little Pai Mei, to tell her that you have seen me washing?" laughed
The Lily.

"I do not think that I shall mention your washing," said Ming So
seriously. "It would not interest her." And he went out to write his
letters.

Lien Fa remained pensive for a moment. Then, with a sudden access of
energy, she flung the wet cloth at the retreating boy and kicked off her
trousers. "Little fool!" she cried again, and Yang Fei put on the other
side of the record.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

At noon he was fetched to go to the wife of Tung Lai Luk. In her top-lit
room she sat, where he had seen her last, beside a huge blackwood screen
decorated with gold dragons.

"I have been thinking about you and what we shall do with you," she
began. "Have you any idea what my unfortunate husband intended?"

"I fancy," said the boy, "that he intended to let me help him in the
business which I understood he did here in Kwei Sek. But, now that I
have seen the nature of this business, I am not so sure, for what could
I do to help him a house such as this, full of girls? I cannot keep
girls in order for him."

"No, that is true. Sit down, child. I think that what your uncle wished
was for you to live here and keep him better informed than he used to be
as to what goes on--the intrigues which there are bound to be in a
house full of girls."

Ming So seated himself on the edge of a porcelain stool. "While I am, of
course, anxious to do whatever my uncle intended, that might of
necessity be altered by the changed circumstances. He has been taken by
brigands who threaten to remove portions of him, and I should like to
know what you are going to do in the matter of his ransom. That seems to
me a more pressing matter, and I should like to know..."

"If you would think less and talk less, you might be of more use to
everybody," she interrupted him. "Do you think that I am not doing
everything which I can do? Do you think that I am leaving it to chance?
Last night, after seeing you in the afternoon, I began at once to
approach people who may be able to help. You can set your foolish little
mind at rest about the steps which we shall take for your uncle's
release. Now, until I give you further orders, you will move about
amongst the girls and report to me ever day at noon all the gossip which
you hear. You should not find this difficult, since you have, I presume,
struck up an acquaintance with the ugly little girl whom my unfortunate
husband so unwisely bought. What friends has she made?"

"She was playing the music-box of the girl called Lien Fa, The Lily,"
answered the boy. "That is all I know"

"Good. Then from her you will hear all that matters, for Lien Fa has a
tongue which never ceases wagging save when she sleeps, and that is not
often. Now go."

Ming So decided that he did not particularly like this woman, his aunt.
He saw also that she was clever, for she had turned the conversation
from the ransom to gossip amongst the girls. How if she did not really
want her husband back? Lien Fa had as much as hinted at this.

"Who saw the noble lady yesterday afternoon?" he demanded suddenly of
the little serving-girl.

"Yesterday afternoon? There was a seller of silk, and three women, and
then a man from the Government--he stopped a long while. That was all,
I think. Why do you desire to learn this?"

"And do you desire to learn why I desire to learn? Women were ever
curious!" He went into this bedroom and shut the door behind him. Time
looked like hanging heavily on his hands. He would go out and post the
two letters which he had written. But as he felt through his pockets,
where he was sure he had put the letters, his hand encountered another
piece of paper. He drew it out and read:

"If you would ask your mother's advice, call instead on the very
honourable descendant of the Master, one Kung Hiao Ling, who lives at
the corner of Market Street and Frog's Lane, in the city of Kwei Sek.
His advice would be mine, for he has all the wisdom of his ancestor,
Confucius, and I knew him when I was young. Remind him, if he will
condescend to see you, of the girl who gave him his hat when he dropped
it at the Eastern Gate."

He recognised his mother's writing. But how? He did not remember hearing
his mother say anything about this paper... She must have put it in
the pocket when she packed his clothes. He almost ran down the stairs.

"Going out?" said the porter lazily.

"Or coming in backwards," answered the boy. "I go to the post office.
Tell me its whereabouts."

"You follow this street until you come to the wine-shop. There you turn
to the left: that is Market Street. As far along that road as a man may
see in a light mist lies the post office."

"Your courtesy is more marked than I had hoped," returned the boy.

Without much difficulty he found the post office and despatched his
letters. Then he searched for Frog's Lane, and finally located the house
where Kung lived--the very wine-shop which the porter had mentioned.
The boy ascended two flights of stairs, guided by information from the
folk on each floor, and finally found himself in a single great room,
running the full depth of the building, on the highest floor. A man sat
cross-legged on a mat in the very centre of the room. A few screens
indicated that more domestic details might be found behind them, by
those who cared to look.

"Have I the incredible honour of addressing Kung Hiao Ling?" he asked,
abashed in the presence of a man who watched him from below heavy lids
as he sat there immobile on his mat. "I fear that I interrupt your
studies?"

The man inclined his head.

"I am the unworthy bearer of a noble name, and you do not interrupt my
studies," he said. "Go on..."

"Once, at the Eastern Gate, a girl picked up and gave back to you the
hat which you had dropped there," said Ming So.

"That happened to me--long ago. What of it?"

"The girl was my mother."

Kung rose to his feet and bowed. "Welcome," he said. "So polite a mother
had a son? It is almost incredible. But..." He held out his hand for
the paper--scanned it. "Your mother rates me too highly. But tell me
your trouble, and I will give you advice, if I have any to give."

"I am the son of Ming Nai," began the boy, in the time-honoured formula
which begins all stories.

"Sit down with me and continue," interposed Kung Hiao Ling. "Now, go
on."

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

"You have, of course, written to your mother to inform her of these
facts?" Kung asked.

"I have written. But, as I wrote the letter before the interview with
the wife of my uncle, I was not able to tell my mother how, in my
opinion, insufficient effort was being made to collect the ransom. But
then there was the officer of the Government who called on my aunt
yesterday afternoon and stayed for a long time. It is possible that he
came on my aunt's invitation, and that she seeks, by means of military
force, to free my uncle without a cash payment. Is that possible?"

"It is possible," agreed the other, "thought it is hardly likely. For
the officials of this new Government look askance on establishments such
as that of your uncle. In fact these establishments have, in some
provinces, been closed by order of the local Government. Here we are too
reactionary at present, perhaps, for so drastic an action on their part,
but it will come. What I intended to convey to you was that even here
the officials look on the business of your uncle with disapproval, and
would therefore be unlikely to make efforts to release him."

"But," the boy cried, "I feel that it is my duty to set him free. After
all, it was on my account that he undertook the journey, and therefore
it was because of me that he was captured."

"You unduly flatter your importance, I think," Kung Hiao Ling smiled. "I
do not think that a man like Tung Lai Luk, whom I have met and (I am
afraid) disliked, would journey so far up the river just to see to the
future of a small nephew. No: the girl whom he purchased, and the fact
that the boat was full of merchandise, both show that the affair of
bringing you down to the city of Kwei Sek was only incidental to his
other interests. Besides, he hoped, if what your aunt says is true, to
make use of you as a collector of gossip. But one can never trust women,
as you will discover."

"That is very true," agreed the boy.

"Well, let the matter stop there for the moment. I will enquire from
certain friends of mine whether she has approached the Government about
releasing your uncle. I will also, through other friends, find out
whether she has attempted to borrow the money for his ransom. You will
doubtless be able to find cause to go again to the post office
to-morrow, when you have written to your mother your account of to-day's
events. Come, then, to see me at the same time, and I may be fortunate
enough to have news for you. But do not talk, nor tell to your excellent
aunt too much of what you hear from the girls. A still tongue is worth
uncounted gold."

"I will do as you say," the boy promised.

"And, on your way downstairs, tell the master of the wine-shop that my
wine-jar is empty. Walk well."

"Walk well," echoed Ming So, in parting politeness.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

In an upper room of the establishment known as "The Happy Heart" two
were talking in the dark. Their voices, at any rate, were very close to
each other.

"She is unaccountably reluctant to arrange for your freedom," said the
man's voice. "I cannot understand her reluctance. Have I not given her,
or at any rate offered, everything that a woman in her position could
desire? Have I not even given her what I would have preferred to have
given only to you?"

"You have," the girl agreed. "She is a water-rat, and the daughter of a
water-rat, and I hate her." She paused. "But, then, you have given her
this thing of which you speak, only once, or twice, or ten times. She
desires it not once, or twice, or twenty times, but always. Do you not
realise that, O blind lover?"

There was only a rustling now. Then the man's voice replied. "I see
that, but I do not desire her. I desire you, sweetheart, and to give to
the water-rat what I desire to give to you only, fills my heart with
loathing and my mouth with a bitter taste."

"Is it not therefore possible, O my lover, that she understands your
feeling--the feeling of which you have just spoken? May she not know
how insincere is your gift? Perhaps that may explain why she still
withholds her willingness, why she puts needless obstacles and
difficulties in our way. But"--and the girl's voice became tender--"am
I worthy, then, of all this trouble? Do you so much desire me?"

"The land desires the rain, and the rain desires the land," he answered.
"Have I then spoken that you would have had me speak? But do you think
that my father could help me? He is, as you are aware, unscrupulous and
without heart, but for me, his son..."

"Your father can do little if she does not wish it," said the girl. "She
is as a granite rock which the water wears away in a year less than a
man can measure. Her heart is of flint. It may be broken, but never
touched."

"What you say is true," replied the man. "In fact, her demands have
lately become greater. I have spoken to my father on the subject, but he
only laughed, saying that women never know what they want."

There was silence for a space now in this upper room in "The Happy
Heart," where these two debated their future. There seemed little more
that might usefully be said. But, after a while, the girl's voice
continued: "I think that she desires you, and in that case I cannot
imagine why, as all the house knows, she has at the present moment not
you, but your father, in her room. I cannot but feel that here is matter
which calls for explanation."

"Do not talk so much," the man's voice replied, laughing. "All will
solve itself, and for the moment we are very happy, are we not?"

"Yes, but..." began the girl, when her voice was lost in laughter.



CHAPTER XII TRAGI-COMEDY


THE day had passed in unendurable peace. To Ming So's enquiries they
replied that Tung's wife was busy and could talk with no one. Lien Fa
was asleep, and, when he wakened her, swore at him and went to sleep
again. Yang Fei proved unbearably dull--he began to realise that in
reciting the "Ballad of Everlasting Wrong" she had exhausted her
repertoire, or so it seemed. The porter, whom the boy approached in
desperation, was reading a novel, and resented interruption.

So the afternoon, and evening passed in utter boredom. Ming So began to
wonder how he could possibly live in "The Happy Heart" for very much
longer. He missed the unending work and incident of the country, finding
the city spiritually a Gobi desert of dullness.

It was about ten o'clock, when the life of the establishment showed
signs of beginning and Ming thought of bed as a refuge from inaction,
that Lien Fa brought a man friend into Ming's room. This man was not
more than twenty-five, and Lien Fa's attitude towards him indicated that
not only her business and professional instincts were affected here. The
boy suddenly realised that The Lily, too, had a real sweetheart. Only
the relations of the two lacked the innocence of Ming's relations with
Pai Mei.

"Here is the callow cavalier," cried Lien Fa to her man. "He knows all
about girls, he says--he, at his age. And behind that door"--she
pulled in Yang Fei by the arm--"stands another innocent. Behold the
two love-birds. And, even so, he has another girl elsewhere." She struck
an attitude, and the man laughed.

"Well, you stand in no danger, Lien Fa, from the girl's competition, so
far as beauty is concerned!" he said. "And if this callow boy can see in
her that which makes a man forget himself, he has weaker eyesight than I
have. What was the amusement of which you spoke, O Lily? Does it concern
these two?"

"It does concern them, very closely," answered Lien Fa. "Do you stand
here by the door and prevent their escape. I will do the rest. Watch!"

Ming So interrupted her. "I should be glad if you would leave my
bedroom," he said. "Honoured as I am to meet this lover of yours, I feel
that sleep is the best occupation for the evening, and it was my
intention to go to bed."

The Lily laughed a little uncontrollably, and he saw, to his disgust,
that she had been drinking. Her man stood in the doorway, mildly amused.

"You shall go to bed," cried The Lily; "you shall certainly go to bed.
But for our amusement you shall not go to bed alone. First, I will
remove from this room all clothing and bed-linen to the room of the girl
Yang Fei. Then you shall see what is to be seen."

"You are mad!" cried Ming So. "Those clothes are mine: put them down!"

"See the lion defending its fur!" said Lien Fa, collecting clothes.
"Come on, if you are so inclined. Try to stop me!" She pushed the boy
violently back into Yang Fei, snatched up the bedding, and carried it
out of the room. "Keep them there, Ah Loo," she cried as she went out.

Ming made a dash for the door, to be seized by the arm and held in a
grip from which he could not escape.

"The boy struggles like a hare in a net," said the man, Ah Loo, holding
him without effort. "Come back and do what you propose, while I have him
fast."

Ming So knew, as he struggled vainly, that the scene was photographing
itself indelibly on his memory. He saw his black case in the corner,
lying open, while all his spare clothes were carried out of the room.
Yang Fei, in another corner, with utter consternation in her moon-like
face, took no part in the proceedings. The bed had been stripped down to
the mattress: the curtains of the room were removed.

"Help!" cried Ming So, and the man put a hand over his mouth.

"Stop yelling," he said, "or I will twist your arm, so."

Then Lien Fa came back to the door, entered, and shut it after her.
"Now," she said, and her eyes were bright with wine, "now. Let us make
them blush. I like seeing children blush, when they do not know why they
are blushing. It will amuse you, Ah Loo. Hold him tightly--he is very
like an eel." But even the boy's wriggling availed little when Lien Fa
took hold of him...

Freed, the boy crouched in a corner, his outraged modesty welling up in
angry tears. He sank his head on his hands, so that he did not see Lien
Fa seize the girl Yang Fei in her turn. He only heard little sobs--"Don't!
It is not right!"--and the laughter of Ah Loo as he watched.

"I will tell the officers of the Government," sobbed the boy. "They will
punish you both."

Lien Fa laughed and set Yang Fei at liberty, "Poor little fool! I always
said that you were a fool. Ah Loo, or his father, constitutes a most
important part of the Government. And do you think that your word will
be taken against his? Do you not know that Ah Loo had a long interview
with the noble lady Tung yesterday about purchasing my freedom? Silly!"

"They make a fine pair, thus, seen crouching in corners without their
clothes," chuckled the man. "Although she is an ugly little thing, and
he is skinny. Still, it is amusing. What do we do next, Lien Fa, to
amuse ourselves?"

"I think that we go away," The Lily replied in a whisper, "and leave
them alone together. After a little while they will be less like wild
beasts crouching there in the corners of the room. Come; I will carry
the clothes of these two, and we will lock the door on the outside.
Then, by and by, we shall come back."

"He is very nearly a man, but not quite," was the last thing Ming heard
Ah Loo say as he shut the bedroom door and turned the key in the lock.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

When the sounds of their feet had died away, Ming So rose to his feet
and blew out the lamp.

"So," he said. "I do not know what we can do now, for they are excited
with wine and may not return for hours to let us out. It does not matter
very much for you, Yang Fei, for you are only a girl. But for a man like
me--the indignity..." He became incoherent for a moment as the memory
flooded back to him. "I shall leave this house tomorrow. I shall leave
it as soon as I can."

Yang Fei's voice sounded for the first time. "It is not warm, Ming So,
and my skin is already becoming chilled. What shall we do?"

"There you go!" Ming groped his way to the bed and sat on the edge of
the mattress. "Troubling about the coldness of your skin! It does not
matter, I tell you. The question is, how am I to escape? That mule's
daughter Lien Fa shall suffer for this. I will tell the noble lady Tung
how she has behaved. I will tell the Government. I will tell..." He
stopped suddenly. "The window! Can we get out that way?" He ran across
and threw it open. There was not here the usual verandah running along
the side of the house, and in the dark, even, he could see the space of
bare, blank wall between him and the window of Yang Fei's room, next
door. Below, out of sight but not out of hearing, the stream ran
bubbling with the late spring rains, at the base of the building. There
was no escape. He shut the window with a bang and swore. "She is the
daughter of a pole-cat. May the gods afflict her and her unpleasing
lover with diseases such that they will be objects of disgust to each
other and everyone else. May..."

"What is the use?" demanded Yang Fei as she sat beside him on the edge
of the mattress, "of cursing them like that? You are wasting your
breath. What must be, must be, and it seems that we are fated to spend a
few hours together. We may as well not spend them in useless sorrow.
Lien Fa and her man will come and let us out some time, and until then
we can sleep."

"But, I have no clothes to sleep in, and no bedding to sleep under," the
boy complained. "They have left us not a stitch of clothing, not a
blanket nor a rug. They shall suffer for it, I tell you!"

"It is not as cold as I thought at first," Yang Fei murmured in the
darkness. It seemed as if her voice were nearer, as she had shifted
towards him. "There are two of us, and two can be warmer than one." Her
arm went round his shoulders, and though he shivered at the touch he
remained still, "Poor little Ah Ming! Go to sleep and forget it until
they return. Come, I will tell you again the _Ballad of Everlasting
Wrong_:

"_The Emperor loved love: he sought Through all his wide domain For one
whose lightest glance could wreck An empire..._

"Now, go to sleep, or I will not tell you more...

"_An empire, but in vain.
_Yang Kuei-fei, secluded,
Her childhood's days had spent:
A woman now, she nothing knew
Of Love's embarrassment_."

Her voice went on through the poem. By and by the boy's stiff shoulders
relaxed, and Yang Fei gathered him into her arms, as the unfortunate
Emperor must have gathered his favourite, as she continued the immortal
poem of Po Chu-I.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Yang Fei sat stiffly on the mattress, holding the sleeping boy in her
arms. Her right leg had gone to sleep, and every now and then she
shivered. Suddenly she heard the key turn again in the lock. She must
have been sleeping, or dozing. The door opened, and Ah Loo came in.

"Sh!" whispered Yang Fei. "He is sleeping. Do not wake him."

Ah Loo shut the door softly and set down the lamp which he was carrying.
"I will fetch his bedding from next door," he said.

"And my clothes, please," said Yang Fei, but the man shook his head as
he went out. He was wearing, she noticed, a pair of The Lily's
flamboyant pyjamas. By and by he returned.

"Set him down on this blanket," said Ah Loo. "He will not wake up. So.
Now we will cover him up and leave him. Lien Fa is asleep, which is
surprising. Come. Softly!"

The door shut behind them, and Ming So slumbered on comfortably in his
untidy mass of blankets, like a small, hairless dormouse.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

The boy woke. It was still night, though the faintest gleam showed
through the window. He seemed to have heard a cry in his dream as he
slept. He sat up and listened. The house was in utter silence, and,
still half-asleep, he was just about to compose himself again in the
warm nest of the blankets when he realised that he was naked. In a flash
all the events of the earlier night returned. Where was the girl?

"Yang Fei," he whispered, and no answer came. He slid out of bed and lit
the lamp with a match from the box beside it. The room was empty but for
himself. They must have gone and left him. All his rage flowed back now.
His clothes were in the next room...

Ming So opened the door of Yang Fei's room, holding the lamp before him.
The fickle gleam of the little oil flame shone in the corners of the
room. He saw his clothes piled together where Lien Fa had dropped them.
But he did not look long at his clothes, for on the bed, curiously
yellow in the light of the tiny lamp, lay Ah Look the lover of The Lily.
He was laying strangely quiet, and as the boy looked more closely he saw
that the white sheet was white only where it fell to the floor in a
motionless cascade. On the bed, where Ah Loo lay, the white sheet became
inexplicably dark grey--dark red. He touched the sheet, and his finger
stuck slightly as he withdrew it.

The boy almost screamed, but it seemed as if his voice would not work.
Ah Loo had been murdered! Ming crept from the room, automatically sucked
his sticky finger, and then spat at the salt taste of blood. What should
he do? Could they all be sleeping? Who had thus murdered Ah Loo, the
lover of The Lily?

He crept along to Lien Fa's room and opened the door with extreme care.

Yang Fei, her eyes wide with horror, sat looking mutely at him from the
bed. Her black hair had become unbraided, hanging in untidy festoons
round her face. Of the room's usual tenant there was no sign: the
gramophone had vanished.

"What has happened?" Ming asked in a whisper. "There is the man, Ah Loo,
lying in a pool of blood on your bed. Did you kill him?"

The girl said nothing, still staring at him with an expression while he
had never before seen on her face. She hardly appeared to see him at
all: her wide-open eyes stared through him at the door. Then, at last,
she spoke.

"He took me in there," she said, and Ming could hardly hear the words.
"Lien was asleep, and he threatened to wake her. Also, you were asleep
where I had left you when he came to open the door and let me out, and I
did not want to wake you. So I went with him." She burst into a storm of
silent, dry-eyed sobbing. "O-oh! And afterwards, when I was wanting to
kill myself, I must have made a noise, for Lien Fa woke and came in. She
had a long knife in her hand, and I saw her strike him as he lay. The
point of the knife cut me, here... Then she laughed and went away. I
was too frightened even to cry out. I heard Lien Fa go out of my room
and then her footsteps went along the corridor."

"She ran away?" demanded the boy.

"When she had gone, I could not bear to sit there with the dead man, so
I came in here. I could not come to your room, after what had happened
to me, for I was ashamed. And then you came, now. That is all I know.
O-oh, what shall I do? He loved me, like that, and now he is dead, and
they will think that I killed him."

Ming So took a decision as he put on his trousers from the pile on the
floor in the room with the murdered man. This matter was too big to hush
up: he must tell the police. The two of them might manage to push the
body over the window-sill into the stream below, but they could hardly
remove all the bloody bedding. And Lien Fa had gone, and there would be
sure to be questions. Anyway, why try to conceal what should be known?
He went back to Lien Fa's room.

"Come," he said, and the girl Yang Fei followed him meekly. "Put on your
clothes from this pile. Then go back into my room and stay there. I am
going to telephone to the police. I do not know how to use the
telephone, but that will solve itself. Where is there a telephone?"

"There is one in the room where the lady Tung sleeps," said Yang Fei.
"Oh, they will think that I did it. I wish I had. I shall say that I
killed him, and then they will kill me. I do not wish to live, after..."

"You are a foolish woman," replied the boy. "Go to my room when you have
dressed--take all my other clothes and the bedclothes back with you,
quickly. Action cures sorrow. I go to telephone."

He padded softly along the corridor in his bare feet. Through the
skylights the dawn was brushing grey on black and pink on grey. But Ming
So did not attend to these things. The room belonging to his aunt was
not locked, and he found the telephone quite easily. Could he use this
strange machine without waking the occupant of the room? He looked
towards the bed and revised his phraseology. The occupants of the room,
he amended. He could not see who the man was. Then he lifted the
receiver from the hook. From a long distance, it seemed, a voice asked:

"What number?"

"Send police, now, to Tung's house," he whispered. "Tung Lai Luk. 'The
Happy Heart.' There has been a killing. One man is dead--a Government
official--Ah Loo, she called him. Room eighty-six. Quick! I cannot say
more."

He set the receiver down on the table and went softly out of the room to
comfort Yang Fei.



CHAPTER XIII TO LIE LIKE A GENTLEMAN


PO FENG HSI, Chief of the City Police, sat at his office desk, tapping
gently on the blotting-pad with a pencil. Opposite to him, on an
uncomfortable, hard chair, sat the wife of Tung Lai Luk. The fact that
the Chief's eye twinkled, while the not ungenerous lines of his build
recalled the Chinese proverb that a fat man is a happy man, availed
nothing to comfort Tung's wife, for she realised that, whatever might be
the outcome of this enquiry into the death at her husband's
establishment of a prominent official of the Central Government, there
was bound to be unpleasantness. These modern officials, she reflected as
she sat uncomfortably on the hard chair, did not understand the old
customs of China--they had been bought up in the atmosphere of the
Revolution of 1911, and judged things by very different standards.

"Ah Loo, or, to give him his full name, Loo Ching, you say, came to your
house to see the girl Lien Fa, who has since disappeared?" The Chief of
Police eyed her severely.

"That is true," agreed the woman. "I wish it were not true."

"When did you last see Loo Ching alive?"

She hesitated, and he was not slow to notice her hesitation. "He came
last to see her three days before this," she told him.

The pencil beat a tattoo on the blotting-pad. "I did not ask you when he
came to see the girl. I asked when you saw him last."

"I did not understand you," she lied. "Loo Ching came to see me on the
previous afternoon."

"On what business? It could not have been on other grounds than
business."

"He came to arrange about the proposed freedom of the girl Lien Fa,"
said Tung's wife. "He desired to take her into his house."

The Chief of Police sighed. "Alas, it seems that the proclamation of the
Central Government has not reached your ears," he said. "Do you not know
that all ownership of girls, formerly called the _mui-tsai_ system, has
passed, and that any girl who has, in the past, believed herself to be
under compulsion to stop with her purchaser is free to go whither she
will, by the decree of the Central Government?"

"Rumours of this absurdity had reached me," the woman admitted, "but I
did not believe them. For, if that were true, what would parents do with
daughters whom they do not desire to keep? Hitherto they have sold them
to people in better financial circumstances."

"That is now illegal," Po Feng Hsi told her. "So the dead man saw you on
the afternoon before, about purchasing the freedom of the girl Lien Fa.
Right. Now tell me, when did you hear of the murder?"

"I was awakened by two of your policemen."

"You had not heard before? Try to remember: any sound, a cry...?"

"None," answered Tung's wife. "I was asleep."

"Yes, that was reported to me. You were both asleep. Also, the telephone
was standing on the table, as if someone had not had time to hang it on
the hook of the instrument. Did you leave your telephone thus?"

"I did not. I last telephoned to the _compradore_, late in the evening,
for a supply of groceries."

"I see." Po Feng Hsi sounded the little gong on the writing-desk. When
the door opened, he said: "Take this woman away. I may need to see her
again. Now the serving-maid."

When she came in, the little girl was frankly appalled. Her mouth hung
open. Po Feng Hsi felt in his pocket and took out a couple of peanuts.
"There," he said. "Eat them." He watched her, smiling, and by and by she
began to feel more at ease. "Tell me what you know about Loo Ching."

"Loo Ching? He used to come to see Lien Fa sometimes, and sometimes to
see the noble lady Tung. He used to go into the lady's room first, and
then he would come and spend the night with Lien Fa. Many nights he
came. We thought he was going to buy Lien Fa."

"Yes. And last night--did you see him?"

"I saw him come, and he was there with Lien Fa in her room. Then they
went to the room of the boy Ming So, and after a little, when I came
back, I found the door locked. Oh, yes, and the girl Yang Fei was in the
same room with them. With those two. I do not think she was happy, but I
do not know what was happening, because that is a door under which one
cannot see. That is all I know."

"You did not see them come out?"

"I did not see them, because I went to sleep. I often go to sleep, and
the noble lady hits me. But they must have come out, because..."

"Yes, yes. I only want to know what you have seen. Here is another
peanut." He struck the little gong, and the child went out, still
munching.

Ming So stood very straight, facing Po Feng Hsi, a little overawed.

"You are the nephew of Tung Lai Luk?" asked the Chief of Police.

"He is my uncle. Yes."

"Tell me all you know."

Ming So coughed, as a man does when taking a deep breath. Then he began:
"I went to bed with the girl Yang Fei. It is pleasant to sleep with a
girl, I have discovered: it is thus possible to keep the feet warm
without wrapping them up in cloth. When we woke, at dawn, I thought I
had heard a noise, so I went to the next room, which was Yang Fei's
room, and there, on the bed, I found the man, dead. I know nothing more.
Oh, yes, I went to the bedroom of the noble lady Tung and telephoned to
the police, very quietly, lest I should waken her and be beaten. She was
not alone, so I expect she would have beaten me very hard. It is curious
how many people seem to have discovered that which I told you--about
keeping the feet warm in bed."

"Who was with her?"

"I did not see who was with her. I was anxious to be silent, for I did
not wish to be beaten, as I have already told you."

"And then?"

"When I had telephoned, I went back to my own room."

The Chief of Police tapped again on his writing pad. "That is all very
interesting, but it does not agree with the girl Yang Fei, who says that
the man Loo Ching, came into her room, and that she killed him with the
knife belonging to Lien Fa, which happened to be in her room. How do you
account for that?"

"Women imagine things," said the boy. "How could Loo Ching have come to
see her, when she was sleeping with me? How could she have killed him,
when she was sleeping with me? Why should she have killed him, as she
says, if she was sleeping with me? And why did the other girl, Lien Fa,
run away, if it was not Lien Fa who killed Loo Ching?" he ended
triumphantly.

"These are questions," replied Po Feng Hsi, "which I prefer you to
answer. Further, I might add to these questions this: where is your
uncle, Tung Lai Luk? What is this tale of brigands which I hear?"

"My uncle was regrettably taken by brigands on the last day of our
journey downriver from my family village of Ha Foo, and is now held for
a ransom of ten thousand dollars. But I do not think that my aunt
desires greatly that he should return to her bed, for she has made no
effort, so far as I can discover, to gather the necessary money from his
friends fro his release. And in one moon from the time when they took my
uncle away we have to be there, in the same place, with the ten thousand
dollars, or the brigands will cut off portions--inconvenient portions--of
my uncle."

"This is a strange tale," the Chief of Police protested. "It sounds to
me very like the dreams of a boy who has idled too much."

"The tale may indeed be strange," countered Ming So, "but it is true.
Ask of Yang Fei, whom he bought at the village of Seung So. Ask of the
crew of the boat in which we travelled, who saw the brigands. You will
find that this is not the sort of story which one imagines, but the
truth."

"Very well." Po Feng Hsi smiled. "Now, you say that the girl Yang Fei
could not have killed Loo Ching, as she says she did, because she was,
all the night, in your bed."

"Yes, I said so. Is it likely that a man would let a woman go from his
room before dawn? It is towards dawn that the feet become coldest, and
then it is that the woman becomes most needed. A bed is cold if one of
the sleepers leaves it."

This time Po Feng Hsi laughed outright. "And are you so skilled in the
arts of love, little one, that you can keep a woman with you all the
night? Her tale seems to me the easier to credit."

"Does she dare to say," cried the boy, "that she was not with me? How
false are women! At one moment they swear undying love, and at the next
they have gone to another man, whom they desire--the gods know why--to
murder. On her story, she should have equally desired to murder me,
for I was the first to have her. Unless she denies altogether that she
was with me at all, which is absurd."

"You may go now," the Chief of Police said, striking the gong. "And I
would advise you to curb your imagination a little. When next I send for
you, after you have had time for reflection, I shall expect to hear the
truth."

"Expectation is poor food," muttered Ming So as he went out. Yang Fei
passed him in the doorway, but she did not look at him.

"The little boy, Ming So, tells me that you were in his room until the
dawn. Why did you not say so to me?" Po Feng Hsi asked her, when the
door had been shut.

"I was ashamed," the girl answered. "He is so very young, and to a girl
of sixteen..."

"But if you were with the boy, surely, as he says, it is the boy whom
you should have wished to murder, not Loo Ching, who was only second?"

"The boy is only thirteen," she replied. "He is not yet a man."

"Now, tell me the whole truth." The Chief of Police suddenly put on his
fiercest manner as he barked at her. "It will be better for you, and
better for the boy. You do not desire me to suspect the boy of the
murder, do you?"

Her eyes opened wide. She was thrown off her balance by the unexpected
and unanalysed possibility. Had she had time to think, she would have
seen the absurdity of the suggestion, but, as it was, the story flowed
from her, in halting sentences.

"That is all?" asked Po Feng Hsi, when she had come to an end.

"That is all."

"You should have told the truth at once. Now go: you have nothing more
to fear, nor has the boy Ming So. Report here"--he handed her an
address--"and they will provide work for you. I shall telephone. Now
go."

"But the boy..."

"The boy will be looked after. Go." He sat back in his chair and laughed
as he sounded the gong again. The intrigues of children diverted him
vastly. "Bring in the woman Tung," he ordered.

Tung's wife appeared far from happy when she came in the second time,
for Po Feng Hsi wore the stern look of a man who has found out the
truth. "You are very fortunate," he said, "in not being put on trial for
breaking the laws of the Republic. I have decided, this time, to
overlook what you have done." The woman breathed more freely. "You may
go. But remember that your establishment will be under suspicion for
some time, and let discretion guide your footsteps. I have sent the girl
Yang Fei to the new Government silk factory, where a post will be
provided for her. As to your nephew, it is not for me to separate
relations. But treat the boy with greater care than you have hitherto
shown. A woman in whose house the son of the Minister of Public Works
has been murdered cannot be too careful in the future. Now go. I do not
think that the Minister, Loo Heng, will wish the matter pressed further.
He has lost a son, but he has only himself to blame, since he did not
bring up his son in the way of virtue..." There came a knock at the
door, and the entrance of an angry man. "Ah, Loo Heng, you received my
message about your son's murder?"

But the Minister of Public Works saw only the woman sitting opposite the
desk.

"You!" he said, and in a flash the Chief of Police understood many
things.

After his first, unguarded expression of surprise, however, Loo Heng
recovered himself. "I desire to know what steps are being taken," he
demanded angrily, "to bring to justice the murderer of my son."

"While it grieves me," replied Po Feng Hsi, "to know that you have lost
a son, my grief is moderated, Loo Heng, by the knowledge that he was
murdered at 'The Happy Heart' by a girl, murdered in a fit of jealousy
by a girl whom he was intending to purchase for his household. I think
that you are fully aware how gravely our law now views such attempted
but illegal bargains. The girl in question has disappeared, but of
course the whole of the police force is at work on the problem of her
whereabouts."

"You have not caught the murderess?" Loo Heng found in vocal storming
relief from the various questions which confronted him. But, even so, it
was not easy to talk, with Tung Nan Tsz sitting there. "Please have this
woman taken away. I do not thus wish to speak before strangers of the
tragic loss which has befallen the family of Loo."

Smiling, Po Feng Hsi sounded the gong. Then he sat back in his chair
listening to the stream of words from the Minister of Public Works. At a
suitable moment he interrupted. "If you will excuse me for an instant, I
have to telephone on urgent business." He went into another room to give
orders for the employment of Yang Fei at the Government silk factory.
When he returned, it appeared that Loo Heng's rage had evaporated, for
he had departed.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

"I am now aware of the truth of the matter, and I cannot but feel that
it would have been better if you had told me that truth at once," the
Chief of Police told Ming So. "It would have saved time. Nevertheless we
must award credit where credit is deserved, and I confess that, in your
place, I might have lied in the same way myself. Not that lying in
general is to be encouraged... Now, you will return to your aunt's
house, and you will keep me informed of any unusual incidents which may
occur there."

The boy objected. "I shall go and see Kung, my friend. He will, if I
have judged him correctly, be able to find me other employment. I do not
very much care to stay in the house of my uncle after what has happened.
And, further, I must see what steps have to be taken in order to secure
my uncle's release."

Po Feng Hsi nodded agreement. "You will no doubt, after this, act
wisely. But this Kung of whom you speak: who is he?"

"His name is Kung Hiao Ling, a man of great learning, who lives alone
above the wine-shop at the junction of Market Street and Frog's Lane. He
has many of the virtues of the Master, his ancestor."

"Then, both because he has those virtues and because he bears the most
honoured name in China, you should not thus refer to him as 'Kung.' Say
rather 'the honourable descendant of the Master.' However, I know of
him, and, if he is content to listen to the babble of a small boy, you
cannot do better than go to him for advice. You are wise. You may go
now."

Again he sat back in his chair and laughed, thinking of the unrehearsed
meeting of the Minister of Public Works with Tung's wife.



CHAPTER XIV FUTURE AND PAST


THE little girl Pai Mei laid down the bunch of rice-plants and, having
separated them, arranged them at suitable intervals along the line of
the shallow trench where Ming Nai carefully planted each one with a deft
motion of a stick and a final adjustment with her left hand.

"There are no more rice-plants than these," said Mei. "That was the last
handful."

The older woman straightened her back. "That is good," she said. "It is
hard work planting out rice, even with a helper such as you, my child."

"Do I not work quickly enough?" asked Pai Mei. "I am sorry. Of course
your son, Ming So, was quicker, but then he is a big boy, and strong."

"You are always thinking of my son Ming So," laughed his mother. "Be not
so constant with your affections, for men always value most highly that
which is not quite so certainly theirs. A too faithful wife, like an old
pair of shoes, may be exchanged for another, just as new shoes, by their
very squeaking, attract for the moment. Make men just a little doubtful..."

"Have you heard more news?" demanded the girl.

"No--I have heard nothing since the last letter, of which I read you a
part. I did not read all the letter to you, since there are some things
which a girl of eleven should not hear, in the interests of herself."

"Tell me, mother," persisted the girl, and the courtesy title made the
elder woman smile.

"No, my child: I will not tell you. It is not for you to know. When you
are older, perhaps, I will tell you. Not now. But rest assured that he
is not behaving unworthily of us. As to his uncle, I am not so sure, nor
of his aunt," she added, as if in after-thought. "But all rests with
Fate. I am not of those who go uselessly to the temple of Kwan Yin to
pray the goddess to alter what Fate decrees. No--the sour with the
sweet, the bright with the dark, I take them as they are sent. But it is
not easy to keep the back straight under a burden."

"What has Ming So been doing?" cajoled the girl, but without effect.
Together they walked homewards in silence.

"I hope that the hire of the water-buffalo will be punctually paid,"
said Ming Nai suddenly. "It is not a satisfactory arrangement to hire
out a beast without due payment." Then she paused and looked at Pai Mei
in astonishment, forgetting the complaint she had been about to make
against a neighbour whom she did not trust too greatly where money was
concerned, for she saw that, for once in a way, Pai Mei had not been
listening to her.

"May I go out this evening?" Mei asked innocently, and Ming Nai nodded
permission. How absorbed in their own thoughts children were, she
reflected as they walked homewards.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Thus it came about that the girl Pai Mei reached the pool below the
waterfall just while daylight lasted. It was lonely here, with no
answering voice anywhere, and somehow even the accustomed noises of the
forest around her were stilled, so that only the continual hiss and purr
of the waterfall sounded as she stepped silently into the pool and waded
out to the middle of the sheet of water. The moon stood just under the
fringe of the forest, and the curtain of falling water hung, luminous,
it seemed, with the smooth green edge like a bar of green where the
water appeared to hesitate before finally plunging to the froth below.

"Oh, Kwan Yin, Kwan Yin, Mother of Mercy," cried the child, as she
stood, breast-deep, facing the waterfall, "turn eyes of pity on me and
on him. Keep foremost in his memory, in his dreams, the moment which we
spent here together, so that, remembering, he may remain mine. Hear, O
Mother of Mercy; hear." No echo came amongst the faint sighing of the
wind in the high trees and the noisy plashing of the water. "O divine
Goddess, who carest specially for women, care for me. Make him love
always what he loved once, here, in this place. O Thou who inhabitest no
temple willingly, Thou who amidst the chants of priests cannot hear
clearly the prayers of Thy worshippers, hear me now, in this free place,
where Thou and I meet, Goddess, once only, as he and I met once only in
the same place. For all else was but a seeming--here was truth, when
he held me in his arms, here, in this pool, and the moon--Thy moon,
Goddess--crept up as it creeps now above the edges of the trees..."

But Pai Mei did not finish her prayer to Kwan Yin, for the words dried
in her throat as she gazed at the waterfall. Half way down the sheet of
dim radiance appeared an area of black, and below this area the waters
no longer poured down in a stream. Then the black was gone! and again
the clear, unbroken surface of white, falling water stretched from the
smooth green edge above to white foam below.

The girl did not analyse her feelings, seeking to classify the
occurrence as a sign, a portent, or an answer to her prayers. She waded
on towards the waterfall, shoulder-high now, then found the bottom of
the pool rising again. Before her stretched the vertical face of the
fall, and she walked into it blindly, eyes shut. The roar in her ears
ceased, and she opened her eyes again.

Behind the barrier through which she had just passed a cave ran back
into the bank. There was no light in this cave except such of the
fast-departing twilight as passed through the curtain of water, but in
the cave were rude comforts. A jug of water, still dripping, stood by
the wall: this had been, she saw now, the object protruding for a moment
from the waterfall. On a pile of rugs sat a man who seemed to the
startled child of incredible age, for his white beard reached, as he
sat, to the floor by his side. He was sitting quite motionless, looking
straight in front of him.

Pai Mei was so surprise that she forgot to cry out. But as she half
turned the old man said: "Come here." Then, as she stepped backwards,
away from him: "I am an old man, and blind, but my ears tell me that you
have come. And your breathing is as the breathing of something young.
More I cannot tell, save that you are frightened. Are you boy or girl?"

He did not move from his position, and with the ceasing of his thin
voice it seemed that the noisy cave was silent.

"I am a boy, and my name is Ming So," said Pai Mei. "I was swimming in
the pool..."

"Climb up to the floor of the cave and come here," said the old man.
"Sit down opposite to me, there. I shall not touch you: you need not be
afraid." His ears seemed to follow her slightest movement with
exactness. "A boy--Ming So. That is strange. Well, why do you come to
me? Few come to me now, for few can find me here. Do you seek to know
the future?"

"I was swimming in the pool," began the girl again.

"I have heard that. Ah, well it is good for the young to be shy. You
would like to see the future, but you dare not ask. I will show you the
past, then. The past is less terrifying to the young. By now the
twilight should have passed to night, and the curtain before us is a
just visible grey. On this curtain of falling water, maybe, you shall
see the past of Ming So."

He turned to his left as he sat.

"On the curtain appears a room, such a room as boy may occupy in a
city," the thin voice went on. "That is strange, for it is many days'
journey to the city. On the bed--which is a high bed, unlike the beds
which are usual in China, as you know--on this bed sits a boy. He is
thirteen years old. By his side there sits another, a girl a little
older. There is no light in the room. She pulls him towards her and
pillows his head on her lap while she tells him old poetry, so that
after a little while he sleeps. It is very hot in the room, for they are
not clothed. Now a noise sounds at the door..."

"Stop!" cried Pai Mei. "Do not speak thus. It is not true."

The old man laughed--a think crackling laugh like bamboos in a south
wind. "No more of the past, then, since you say it is not true, but the
future. Lo, the same boy, very little older, is sitting by a fire on
open ground. Above him the stars move slowly across a velvet sky. The
fire flickers, and brightens with strange, moving tongues the faces of
those who sit with the boy round the fire under the circling stars."

"I am not Ming So," said Pai Mei, crying quietly. "I am Pai Mei, a
foolish girl who loves that Ming So."

The picture on the waterfall had vanished.

"Many girls used to say that in the days when girls came to see me,"
said the old man. "I knew that you were not a boy, for a boy does not
pray to Kwan Yin. But be comforted: I am a very old man, and I cannot
see you now as you sit there, I suppose, with the last gleam of a light
that has already gone lighting the curves which Ming So, one day, will
delight again to see and to honour. For boys and men worship at no such
altar as you, my child. For them beauty, fleeting beauty, is the goddess
behind the veil, and while that beauty lasts they worship. But you are
crying again--I hear you. Be comforted--you are yet young; the years
have not yet rubbed into a smudge the lines of your body."

"I must go," whispered the girl. "It is not right to talk to you thus,
with no clothes."

"I am an old man with keen ears," he answered, "and you are but a child.
There is no harm. See, my evening meal has come. Ah, I forgot, you
cannot see in the dark. But here is the otter who brings my fish.
Listen: he bites, ever so gently, at the back of the head, so that now
the gleaming body lies still, here, at my feet. Come: I will cook it for
us both."

She heard him rise to his feet, and from a corner came the sound of
flint on steel, then a tiny flicker of flame. She saw now that he held
in his hand a large fish, and as the flame flared up a dark, shiny body
slid over into the water. The otter had gone.

"He is always afraid of the fire," said the old man, echoing her
thoughts. "Like me, he prefers the night. There, the fish is cooking.
Child, you shiver: I can hear your teeth rattling. Come to the fire and
warm yourself."

The fire which he had lit on the rock floor blazed up, but Pai Mei
dashed through the waterfall and washed ashore, still sobbing. The
waterfall showed with all the colours of the rainbow as she looked at
it, and Pai Mei remembered that rainbows represented the not alt all
respectable love-affairs of the Ying and the Yang, whereby the world was
first brought into being...She fled into the kindly tunnel of the
forest, grasping her clothes, running as if pursued.

But there were no pursuers save her own thoughts--the picture of Ming
So sleeping in the lap of another girl...



CHAPTER XV THEIR STRENGTH IS TO SIT STILL


"IF you think that it would be better for me to remain in the house of
Tung, I will do so," said Ming So, sitting very upright opposite Kung
Hiao Ling in the big room above the wine-shop at the junction of Frog's
Lane and Market street. "It will be difficult to behave with the dignity
becoming to a man after what has happened, since everyone in 'The Happy
Heart' will be aware that I was stripped of my clothes and made to
endure indignities which I cannot contemplate without shivering. But if
you think that it would be wise for me to remain..."

"I do think so," said Kung. "Since you are an intelligent boy, I will
tell you why I think that it would be wise for you to do so. You see,
without your presence at 'The Happy heart' we have no one there on whom
we can rely for information. The girl Yang has gone to the Government
silk factory, the child who serves meals and sweeps is too young to know
how to observe and how not to observe..."

"But," objected Ming So, "you know all about the household--much more
than I have told you. How is this?"

Kung Hiao Ling smiled. "I know from my own enquiries, from the
information which Po, the Chief of Police, gave me this morning, and
also from that you have not said."

"From what I have not said? I do not understand, sir."

"To a wise man what you do not say is just as valuable for information
as what you do say. But have I advanced reasons enough for your
remaining at the house of Tung?"

"Your advice waits on no reasons," said Ming So. "I shall remain there.
Would it be possible for me to hear some of the things which you have
found out?"

"Bring me that wine-jar and fill my cup. Now, the first interesting
thing is the disappearance of your uncle. You remember that you told me
how quietly the brigands came to take him away? There was no shooting,
no blood--only a quiet order and a quiet compliance with that order.
Of course, in the face of superior force it is useless to struggle, but
still... Think on that fact. Then, secondly, there is the behaviour of
Tung's wife, Tung Nan Tsz, your aunt. Not only does she make no effort
to gather money from her friends, as I have ascertained, but she
exhibits a friendship for Loo Heng which is peculiar when you consider
that he is the Minister of Public Works, and that his son was also
employed in the same office, while she follows a trade which, however
ancient it may be, is hardly one where we hope to find Government
officials involved."

"Involved?" queried Ming So.

"Involved. There was more in their acquaintance than her business
justified. I think that I know what it was, but I will not tell you
yet."

"I do not question your wisdom," said the boy. "But when, honourable
sir, is the money to be raised for my uncle's ransom? For, in spite of
his wife's behaviour, and in spite of what I have endured at 'The Happy
Heart,' I still feel it to be my duty to try to rescue him from the
consequences of his journeying on my behalf."

"Do not distress yourself on that account," Kung smiled. "I shall see to
it. And you will not regard my promise as an empty one. But remember
that, if I appear to do nothing, if Tung Nan Tsz does nothing, you will
not protest. You will just watch and report to me. Do you understand?"

"I understand. I will do as you say. But I do not think that my aunt
likes me, after what has occurred. It will be awkward if she takes it
into her head to turn me from the door."

"She cannot do that, since her absent husband wished you to be there.
And, however I may doubt her real desire to do her husband's will, I am
sure that, outwardly, she will show you the same care as he would have
done. She knows the value of appearances. You will, in any case, take
the precaution of being on your guard and reporting to me any incidents
which may seem strange to you."

"I will. Now I must go. I have been away much longer than it needs to
post a letter, and I wish to give rise to no suspicion."

"Good," smiled Kung. "Fill my cup before you depart."



CHAPTER XVI AN OLD FAIRY-TALE


MING NAI laid a cool hand on the child's feverish brow. "Now, Mei, lie
still, like a good girl, and perhaps I will tell you one of the old
stories. Then you will sleep, and the fever will pass."

"I shall die, and Ming So will not know that I am dead," wailed Pai Mei.

"No--you will not die; do not be so foolish. Would Ming So wish you
thus to sadden his mother by talking of death? Besides, it is silly. You
are too much of a nuisance, Mei, to die while you are young. Wait until
you are more useful--that is the time to die. Now, what story would
you like? The story of the weaver-girl, or of the monkey who argued with
Buddha, or..."

"Is there a story," whispered the girl, "of an old man who lives behind
a waterfall and tells you the past and the future?"

"There is such a story. Now, I wonder where you heard that? Lie back,
put your hands under the bedclothes, and listen. Once upon a time there
was a girl who loved deeply a prince whom she had once met. She had only
seen him once, and had not even spoken to him, so that I was wrong to
says 'met.' She hoped that this prince loved her, too, and all the days
when she was in the fields, or working in the house, her thoughts were
made happy by the hope of his love. For boys and girls, you know, think
love to be something very different from that habit of living together
which older people find it. Put your hands under the clothes."

"They loved each other," said Pai Mei, rapt. "Go on."

"Well, the girl one day went to the river to bathe, and while she was
bathing--quite alone, of course--she found a waterfall below a cliff
of green jade. Being a curious girl, she ventured to pass through the
waterfall, and on the far side of it she found an old man, blind as a
mole, but..."

"I know," whispered Pai Mei. "He had a long white beard and lived on
fish which the otter brought to him."

"Since you appear to know this story, shall I tell you another one?"

"No--tell me about the old man."

"Well, she was surprised to see him, sitting thus behind a waterfall,
but, since he was blind, she did not feel that she need withdraw. So she
told him that she was a boy--you know that the voices of young boys
and girls are much the same--and gave the name of the prince whom she
loved, as if it were her own."

"Is this a story?" asked the girl in bed.

"Of course this is a story! Do you think that I am telling you something
that happened to me? Why, I cannot swim. Shall I go on?"

"Please," said Pai Mei.

"She told him that she was the prince, and he showed her the past and
the future, not of herself, but of the prince. And when she saw what the
past of the prince was like, she hated the prince, and when she saw what
the future of the prince was like, she hated him still more, and she..."

"That is not true," interrupted Pai Mei. "She did not hate him. Oh, my
head burns! Give me a drink of water and tell me another story."

"You have not let me finish the first, and tell you how it was all a
mistake, and how they lived happily ever afterwards when the prince
returned and told her the truth of the things which she had heard from
the old man behind the waterfall. But I will give you more water. Here."

"They lived happily ever afterwards?" asked Pai Mei, and her eyes were
bright.

"Yes, of course. They always do live happily ever afterwards in these
old stories. It is only in the new stories that the ending is not
happy."

"I like the old stories better," said Pai Mei, snuggling down and
closing her eyes. "I shall get better now. I do not any longer want to
die."

Ming Nai softly stepped away and left her sleeping.



CHAPTER XVII NEWS AND A DREAM


THE boy Ming So had struck up with the porter of "The Happy Heart" that
species of friendship which is always possible between those whose
stations in life are markedly different. Ming found in the porter's
keen, cynical sense of humour a dryness which fitted well with the
development of his adolescent mind, while the porter not only liked
displaying for the boy's benefit such gems of wit as he possessed, but
also felt that, in thus hob-nobbing with the powers above him, he was
rendering more secure his own tenure of his post. The two would sit side
by side in the entrance-hall, passing not always inaudible comments on
the patrons of the establishment as they came and went.

This acquaintance, from Ming So's point of view, possessed a further
advantage, in that from his friend the porter he learned just the gossip
which he was expected daily to serve up to the noble lady Tung, and
gossip, at that, which she could always verify, if she so desired,
without the danger of her finding that the boy had drawn too deeply on
his imagination. The two were sitting thus one late afternoon some three
weeks after Ming So's arrival at "The Happy Heart" when a man came with
a letter. This man was clearly not of the city, and to the boy, as he
sat there only half interested, there seemed something familiar in the
set of the man's shoulders, the line of the back of his head...

"I will leave you here," said the porter, "in charge, while I take this
doubtless unimportant letter to the noble lady Tung. It would not be
fitting to leave unguarded the entrance to so many delights."

Ming So nodded. He was watching the departing back of the man who had
brought the letter. Then he suddenly remembered with a start. Of
course--this was the bearer of the lantern who had accompanied the leader
of the pirates when Uncle Tung Lai Luk had fallen into the hands of those
desperate men! And the man had gone, and it might be impossible to find
him again... The boy sprang to his feet and ran out into the street,
leaving the many delights of which the porter had spoken to look after
themselves. He ran, and as he reached the end of the street he sighted
his quarry, hastening back, presumably, to the wharf... Ming dropped
to a walk, thinking hard. It would be of no avail to make a scene, for
no one would believe a boy. So he followed, and by the time that the
river came into sight he had made up his mind. He would follow this man
to the place where they were keeping his uncle, and would try to set his
uncle free.

The messenger went on board one of the many boats in the river, and Ming
hung about in the twilight, watching for signs of the boat's departure.
He knew that most boats were towed up the river by steamers for as great
a distance as this means of transport was possible: where the river
became impassable for steam, reliance had to be placed on the ancient
method of man-power. The boy's quick eye noted that a launch in the
vicinity had steam up, while all round, on all the boats near him,
streams of coolies bore barrels, sacks, bundles, and cases down to the
waiting craft. On the boat in which he was particularly interested, Ming
So noted, white wood barrels were stacked high on the deck. He followed
with his eye to the high pile of these same barrels standing near him on
the wharf. Their contents were easy to identify, for from the barrels
rose a strong, persistent odour of dried fish.

Instantly the problem solved itself. He waited his opportunity and then,
when no one was looking, tipped three-quarters of the contents of the
nearest barrel out into the slimy water at the back of the floating
wharf, climbed into the barrel, and arranged the lid in place just as he
heard approaching him the voices of the coolies. And then, after a
jerky, sick journey and eventual arrival at his destination on the deck,
he remembered what he ought to have remembered before--that the convoy
could not start before daylight, in any case.

After dark, therefore, a small figure might have been seen creeping into
"The Happy Heart," and behind the figure remained, as he passed, an
unmistakable odour of dried fish.

Ming went to bed early. The next morning, long before dawn, he proposed
taking his place again in his barrel of dried fish in pursuit of his
knightly adventure.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

The tattoo of finger-nails sounded on Ming So's bedroom door, and he got
up to open it. Yang Fei came into the room, and he was astonished to
note the difference in the girl. No longer was she the oppressed,
unhappy child, for she had apparently spent her first three weeks' pay
from the Government silk factory almost entirely on clothes. He stood
gazing in astonishment at the radiant personality before him.

"May I come in?" asked Yang Fei, having come in. "I came to bring you
good news." She shut the door behind her.

"Good news is best in daylight," returned the boy. "But go on, since you
are here."

"It is that the things which happened to me when I lived here have had
no ill effect."

"I do not understand you," said Ming So. "Have you come here, and at
this hour, to tell me that you are in good health?"

She dropped her eyes. "In a sense, yes. For in the mouth of a girl good
news means more than in the mouth of a boy."

"I still do not understand. Must you propound puzzles when I have gone
to bed? Speak plainly."

"I am not going to have a bay," she said. "I thought that you would
understand."

"And who," he demanded, "ever thought that you were going to have a
baby? People only have babies when they are married, and you are not
married, so how could you have a baby?"

She smiled at his ignorance. "No, little Ming So, I am not married. One
day you will understand more clearly what I have just told you, and you
will know, also, the reason for my great joy."

"It seems to me that all this talk about knowing if you are going to
have a baby is all dog's wind," said Ming So, for he was annoyed. "How
can one tell, and why should one expect such things?"

"You will know one day," she repeated. "But you should be flattered that
I came, first, to tell you, because it was your presence that made me
endure what I did endure. When I remember"--and she put her arm round
him--"my vision of a figure with a long dagger, striking again and
again at the back of the man with whom I had slept, I am still cold with
fear. But now..."

"But you knew it was Lien Fa," he said. "That would make it less
horrible. And, in any case, you would do well to forget it and let me go
to bed. Was it not Lien Fa whom you saw?"

"Of course it was. Who else could it have been? But, to see in my memory
the long knife, rising and falling..." She buried her head on his
shoulder.

"Oh, yes, you may stop if you like," grumbled the boy. "If you want to.
But I have to go out very early, before dawn, on important business, so
do not wake me again in the night with your tales of murders, and
knowing whether a girl is going to have a baby or not. Now, good night;
we have talked enough. And if you wake at dawn and I am still here, wake
me, for I shall have overslept. But I think that I shall have wakened
first." He turned his back and went to sleep.

Yang Fei lay down beside him. Then, after a minute, she rose again and
moved about the room. Suddenly she found the object of her search, and,
opening the window, jammed under it the fishy garments which Ming So had
discarded on the floor, so that they hung down outside the window in the
open air. Then she lay down again.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

In the deep violet sky of Ming So's dream, rather larger stars than one
would have expected were fixed like Catherine wheels at arbitrary points
in the heavens. Like Catherine wheels, too, they seemed to be revolving
slowly, so that streaks and lines of light emanating from them crossed
and recrossed like the rays of a battery of lighthouses.

There was no moon in his dream, but scattered through the sky the boy
saw long, cylindrical fragments of translucent material, like
milk-glass, aimlessly drifting.

And now, on one of these fragments near the horizon, he detected a
seated figure. As she drew nearer, he saw that Pai Mei was sitting
astride a bundle of these translucent cylinders, tied together with
string, of nearly but not quite equal lengths. She sat upright, as one
sits a horse, and her left arm was held, slightly curved, above her
head, like a circus rider's when a jump has been safely negotiated.

The bundle of moonbeams which bore Pai Mei came towards him, hovered
gently, and as gently descended to earth, leaving the little girl
standing astride above it as it lay on the ground with a faint, bluish
vapour ascending from it.

"I have come," said Pai Mei, and gave a kick to the large, flabby fish
on which she had been riding, it appeared. The fish bent somewhat in the
middle as it slithered across the floor away from them. She must have
hurt her toes, kicking the fish like that, Ming reflected, for she wore
no shoes, nor, indeed, did she wear anything at all, thought she seemed
very properly unconscious of the fact.

"What were you doing?" Pai Mei asked.

Now Ming So turned, following the direction of her pointing finger,
towards the bed where Yang Fei still slept solidly on her face, one arm
up, pillowing her head.

"That is my own affair," he replied, in his dream.

"It is mine also," said Pai Mei, pointing again to the large, flabby
fish lying there on the bed. "It appears to be a very strange thing to
do, thus to go to bed with a fish, and with such a large fish, too."

"It is not my fault," answered the boy. "I asked for lobsters, but they
gave me this. They told me that it was more reliable than lobsters."

"And _does one climb a tree to seek for fish?_" came now the voice of
his mother, Ming Nai. "And to climb on such a tall bed as this in order
to search for lobsters seems to be not quite what I should have
expected."

Pai Mei had shrunk now to about half size, holding his hand as she stood
there. The lobsters had lathered in a ring about them both and were
closing in. He recognised amongst these lobsters several of the girls
whom he had spoken to at "The Happy Heart." They, of course, wore no
clothes either, nor did he...

Ming So woke up in a cold sweat of fear. He knew that he felt, even
without looking at the girl sleeping there in his bed, quite different
from anything which he had ever felt before, and that he was very much
afraid. His teeth wanted to chatter, although he was not cold...

He slipped out of bed and, after much searching, found the garments
which Yang Fei had hung outside the window. When he was dressed he felt
better, safer, but even now the strange sensation of his dream was long
in leaving him. He looked down at the sleeping Yang Fei, and then
hurriedly looked away again, for looking at Yang Fei seemed to make this
sensation worse again. It was all most disturbing.

Opening the door softly, he fled on silent feet down empty corridors
(for it was near the dawn) to the street, and so back to the barrel of
dried fish on the launch tied up at the wharf.



CHAPTER XVIII THE LITERARY METHOD


"AND that is the result of my enquiries into the boy's disappearance,"
said the Chief of Police. "He was last seen by the porter, giving
evidence of his discreet methods of life, for he was then going up to
bed at the hour of ten. The only evidence which I have not heard is
evidence which I wished you, Kung, to hear with me--that of the girl
Yang Fei. I have her waiting below."

Kung Hiao Ling smiled and replenished his wine-cup. "You will drink
another cup before she comes?" he asked. "No? What a pity! For I have
chosen of all the vices the least harmful to others: a man may sit and
drink until he is one with the dwellers in the moon, and if he still
sits thereafter he is no trouble to anyone else. Did not the poet say..."

"I hesitate to forgo the pleasure of hearing from you what the poet
said," observed Po Feng Hsi, "but I would remind you that while you
drink the world goes on turning, and time is not wholly unimportant
where the disappearance of Ming So is our concern. Shall I have the girl
brought up to speak with us?"

Kung nodded. "Do what you will. I cannot expect all men, however they
may be wise in other ways, to see things from my own angle. Yes, call
her."

The other struck a gong. To the Chinese detective who appeared he said:
"the girl."

"I think," observed the drinker, "that the modern craze for shortness of
speech is carried to excess. To use two words where there is legitimate
use for a sentence--to use a sentence where a speech is requisite--appears
to me..."

Yang Fei entered and stood before the two men.

"Tell your story," said the Chief of Police.

"Nay, not so curtly, elder-born," protested Kung. "Rather, my young
friend, bearer of the name of the famous concubine of the Emperor Huang,
tell us, if you will, of the events of last night, when you entered
again the house of 'The Happy Heart,' leaving again at an early hour
to-day. For on what you say much depends."

"That is what I said," objected Po Feng Hsi, but the girl had already
begun her tale.

"I went to see Ming So," she said, "and found him in bed. He was tired,
and I stayed with him."

"Unusual, but kind," commented Kung, choosing words which were some two
centuries out of date, just to annoy the Chief of Police.

"Before he went to sleep he told me that he was compelled to go out on
business before dawn, and commanded me, if he was still sleeping at
dawn, to wake him. But I slept, and when I woke he had gone. So I, too,
left 'The Happy Heart' and went to have my rice before beginning work at
the factory. That is all I known."

Kung refilled his cup. "That is a collection of facts," he said, "such
as you, Po Feng Hsi, delight to hear. For may part, I prefer the subtler
information which the spirit gives--the airs that breathe upon the
mind from unnoticed objects, the scent of a blossom round the corner."

"Valuable as literature, but valueless as evidence," said the Chief of
Police. Then he smiled at the girl. "Did you, then, experience these
soul-disturbing emanations of which the cultured Kung speaks?"

Yang Fei, after all, knew "The Everlasting Wrong," and resented the
criticism which she felt in the voice of the Chief of Police.

"It is unfitting," she said, "to jeer at literature and the _unusual
but kind_ remarks of the descendant of the Master. Besides, he is
right." She employed Kung's own pair of adjectives.

"Explain," said the Chief of Police, ignoring her implication.

"He spoke of airs, of scent. There was a smell, which I have just
recollected--a smell of dried fish." When the two men had finished
laughing, she went on. "It was a suit of the boy's clothes. I hung them
out of the window to air, and when I woke to find him gone, the clothes
and the smell had gone, too."

"Dried fish?" mused the Chief of Police, looking at Kung.

"Dried fish," Kung answered jestingly. "Can you read the riddle? Has the
emanation of which you spoke disturbed the soul of which you also spoke,
O Chief of Wordless Police?"

"The methods of the literary artist are beyond my understanding,
elder-born. Would you deign to explain to me?"

Kung rang the gong. When the detective reappeared, he said: "Telephone
to the police office at the city wharf and ascertain the destination of
a large cargo of dried fish which was sent off yesterday." Then he
refilled his wine-cup. "Also, find out from the man who was posted to
watch 'The Happy Heart' if a countryman came the day before, probably
with a letter, for the noble lady Tung. When these answers have come, Po
Feng Hsi, we can go on with our plans."

"Your plans," replied the Chief of Police, smiling.

"Our plans. I dream; you translate into action; which is, after all, the
peculiar duty and privilege of a policeman. Girl, if I may be short with
you, will you go downstairs and wait until something has happened? Then
we will send for you. Po, a cup of wine now?"

"While waiting, I have no objection to, perhaps, one cup," answered the
Chief of Police.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Later, the detective returned.

"Well," asked Po Feng Hsi.

"The fish was destined for one day's journey upriver. The countryman to
whom you referred arrived late in the afternoon and left again
immediately. It is not known for whom the letter was designed, but it
was given to the woman Tung. After the countryman had left, the boy Ming
So also left, but returned in the evening."

"I bow to your incredible perspicacity," said the Chief of Police to
Kung Hiao Ling. "What now?"

"The detective may return to his detection," said Kung. "You and I will
explain to this girl what is required of her."

"I did not know that anything was required," said the other.

"Much is required, including intelligence," replied Kung. "I have hopes,
too, that she may possess intelligence, for she shows an appreciation of
literature."

"I bow again," replied the Chief of Police, as he prepared to listen.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

"I am going away for a holiday," said Kung, when he had finished telling
the Chief of Police what was to be done. "I shall go up-river, alone. Do
not fail to act as I have suggested, and if, in my absence, any new
question of policy should arise, reflect, before you make your decision,
that action, admirable as it is, marks a man who has not taken
sufficient time to think. It is better not to act at all than to act
unwisely."

"I will strive to graft the bough of your method on the tree of my own,"
replied Po Feng Hsi, a trifle doubtfully, as he prepared to depart. "It
will be difficult, for I have been learning to rely on you. Must you
take a holiday just now?"

"Yes: I have heard of a new vintage of wine, and I go to seek it," Kung
announced.



CHAPTER XIX SLEUTH


YANG FEI stood with bowed head in front of the wife of Tung Lai Luk.

"That was my wish," she said. "It occurred to me that since Lien Fa had
gone away, you would have space for one more girl, and I had the
temerity to hope that..."

"And how about your price?" asked Tung's wife. "I am not prepared to pay
much."

"My qualifications are so small," replied the girl, "that I should not
dream of asking more than a small amount. And, after all, the payment
which was made to my father by your honourable husband really answers
the question. Still, if you would open for me a banking account and pay
in what you think right each month, I shall not complain."

"It is an easy life," said Tung's wife. "Foolish girls are they who
labour long hours in a factory when it is possible for them to live here
in ease and comfort. The Government is very foolish, too, in desiring to
abolish or alter the bargains made by a parent. It is not in consonance
with the ancient custom of our race."

"Yes, they should not interfere with the bargains made by a parent,"
said Yang Fei. "Now, if you will excuse me, I will go to fetch my
property from the room which I have been renting near the Government
silk factory."

"Go, then: I wish more girls were as sensible as you appear to be," said
Tung's wife; and, when Yang Fei had shut the door after her, Tung's wife
sat for a long time, resting her head on her hands, thinking...

Later, Yang Fei called the little sewing-maid into her room. "Child,"
she said, "do you like sweet-meats? Such as this?" A small hand accepted
the sticky offering. "What is your name?"

"My name," said the child, "I do not know. That is to say that everyone
calls me, _mui_, which just means 'girl,' and I do not remember ever
having had any other name. But I must carry these bowls of rice to the
room of the noble lady. Do all other girls have names?"

"Most of them," said Yang Fei. "But we must see about getting you a
name. Perhaps the noble lady knows your name. Now you must go and
proceed with your duties, as you were doing before I asked you in here
to give you a sweetmeat."

Beneath the bedroom door she saw that the shadows of two feet moved
swiftly away.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Three o'clock in the morning, with clouds obscuring all but the glimmer
of a light from the sky. Behind Yang Fei, as she shut the door, lay the
dark corridor, empty save for little rustlings--a yawn, a sigh, a
creak. Before her, under the small light, the bedroom of Tung's wife
showed mysteriously dark in the corners. The girl tiptoed over to the
bed, to make sure that the occupants slept as soundly as the
sleeping-draught, which she had slipped into their rice while the small
servant was not looking, led her to expect. It was curious to see the
man--Loo Heng, the Minister of Public Works--lying asleep there with
his foolish mouth open and his lips dry and shining faintly, while
beside him the woman lay on her face with one arm on the pillow and the
other resting across the chest of the sleeping Loo. Presumably they
loved each other in some sort of way, these two. And Yang Fei suddenly
drew her mind back from a consideration of the ethics of the position,
as she remembered what she had come for.

The papers on the table were bills only--bills and receipts. Yang Fei
drew from an inner pocket the little piece of wire with which the Chief
of Police had spent half an hour teaching her to open all the locks in
Kung's room, and put on her hands a pair of rubber gloves... The
drawers contained clothing, medicine, articles of which she could only
guess the use, until she finally opened the last in the lacquer cabinet.
Here were letters, and she scanned them one by one. Only three down she
found what she had been seeking, and, without reading the whole of it,
slipped the letter into her pocket and carefully relocked the drawer
with her piece of wire. Then she gave a last look at the sleepers and
returned to her own room.

Locking herself in, she took a reel of cotton from her pocket, tied the
end to a nail in the window-frame, and released the reel as far as she
could reach over the sill, in the direction of the stream below. For a
little while nothing further happened: then her hand felt tugs on the
cotton--two long and one short tug--again two long and one short.
She took the rubber gloves from her pocket, inserted in one of them the
rolled-up letter, slipped the second glove over the first, and twisted
the whole into a bundle, which she secured with the piece of wire which
the Chief of Police had given her. Through the ring on the end of this
wire she inserted the end of the cotton which she still held, and then,
leaning out from the window, let the package fall towards the ground
below.

She waited, cotton over her finger, like a fisherman waiting for a bite.
By and by came a new series of pulls on the cotton--two short and one
long--and she threw clear her end of the cotton, shut the window
noiselessly, and lay down to sleep.



Chapter XX DRIED FISH


MING SO was glad to observe, under the partially raised lid of the
barrel, that a long overdue twilight was approaching. He was cramped
from squatting on his haunches in the barrel throughout the long hours
of the boat's passage upstream: the evil juice of the fish had
penetrated his shoes: the sausage which he had hurriedly put in his
pocket the night before tasted of fish: his hair seemed greasier than
usual.

Thus it was with delight that he found the boat drawn to a wharf just as
the lanterns at various mastheads began to throw circles of light on wet
decks, and discovered that he could, in the comparative darkness of his
part of the boat, slip unobserved from his unpleasant hiding-place and
take cover on the wharf.

The man whom he had been following was last to go ashore. Ming stood in
the shadow of the pile of cases on the wharf, then slid silently in the
direction which the man had taken.

His quarry passed through the village of Nam Pa and set out along a
narrow road between paddy-fields. The boy felt at home here, and took
advantage of this feeling to have a quick drink from a tethered
water-buffalo which some farmer had not yet fetched in for the evening
milking. Even so, the buffalo-milk tasted unpleasantly of fish...

He followed the man into the country. On both sides the paddy-fields
seemed to recede in infinite areas of wet mud: then the two came to the
end of the paddy-fields, and Ming plodded on, ever at a safe distance
behind the heels of the other, into the open country by a track while
hardly earned the name of road. He was half asleep with fatigue, but
still he hung on grimly to the man in front, conscious that he was only
doing what he conceived to be his duty. By and by he saw a light ahead
of them: he moved nearer--as near as safety permitted. The man entered
the courtyard of a house: Ming followed.

In the warm night two people were sitting out under the gleam of
coloured paper lanterns hung on poles stuck into the ground. And Ming
So, listening to their talk, was surprised to see that the man whom he
had followed went up to one of these figures and said: "I presented your
letter to the wife of Tung Lai Luk, and then I came away at once,
without waiting for a reply, as you commanded."

"Good," said a second voice. "Go now; that is all. My daughter, tell me
what you have been saying about old Tung Lai Luk. I fear that I have
been half asleep in this twilight."

Lien Fa's familiar voice replied.

"Tung could not get a mortgage on his business, because his own bank
knows that the Government intends shortly to make all such businesses
illegal, and then they will have no value on which a bank would give a
mortgage. But his wife knows Loo Heng, the Minister of Public Works, who
is, also, a director of her bank--of the lady Tung's bank, I mean. So
it is possible that, with sympathy from her friends and influence from
Loo Heng, she may succeed in getting her mortgage. She certainly would
not have got it if Tung himself had been in Kwei Sek, because Tung is
jealous of Loo Heng, and does not allow him to come to the house."

A third figure came towards them.

"Still talking?" came the voice of Tung Lai Luk. "Lien Fa, what is this
smell of fish which affronts me?"

Ming So could not get out of the courtyard unnoticed, so he took his
courage in both hands.

"I have come to share your confinement, my uncle," he said. "I regret
that, on the way, I fell into contact with certain cargo on the boat by
which I came..."

"Lien Fa, take the boy away and wash him," said Tung. "Wash him
thoroughly. Ha, you laugh, do you?" he said to the brigand. "Lien Fa
will enjoy the task, if I know her. Always seeking the company of the
young of the sex, that was ever her motto. Now--what about a game of
Ma Jongg? We can get the other two, when the boy has been washed..."

Ming So, amazed at the treatment which his uncle seemed to be receiving
at the hands of these unexpectedly kindly brigands, was led away by The
Lily.

"But," he said, when she had taken him to a pump at the other side of
the house, "I do not understand at all. Why are you here, and why does
the brigand treat my uncle with such unbrigandish courtesy?"

The girl laughed at him. "You will understand soon enough, little
curious one. Now--take off all those evil-smelling garments, every one
of them, and give them to me. I will fetch such of my own clothes as you
can wear. Hurry! Tung Lai Luk desires to play Ma Jongg with us, and we
must not be too long, or he will get in a bad temper. Come, hurry! It is
getting dark here, or I would help you myself."

"I prefer," returned Ming So, stripping off the odorous garments, "to be
my own valet. I seem to remember another occasion on which you made the
same offer, but more forcibly." He held out a collection of garments.
"Stay--there are more, Lien Fa. It is indeed a strange whim on the
part of the eternal gods that I should so often be naked. I think that,
had the gods in question considered the matter at all, they would have
arranged for man to be feathered. Here are the other clothes. Take them
and return swiftly with garments to replace them."

"While I am gone," said Lien Fa, "wash under this pump, and wash
thorough, for you smell of fish more than I had imagined anything other
than a fish could smell. I will wash your clothes for you to-morrow,
when it is light. Now--do not spare the water. It is cheap."

After some time Tung Lai Luk and the brigand, sitting at the Ma Jongg
table in the house, were joined by Ming So and Lien Fa. The boy, lost in
a pair of the girl's typically lurid pyjamas, blushed at the roar of
laughter which greeted him.

"I think your laughter discourteous," he said. "My present condition is
only due to my following you and finding you, my uncle, as I conceived
it to be my duty to follow you. And now, having found you, I am in a
house so ill-conditioned as to possess no store of spare clothes. Hence
I am in debt to Lien Fa, here."

His uncle patted him on the shoulder--a rare gesture for a Chinese.
"You are a good boy. Now, come and sit down. We always play a round or
two in the evening, and you cannot well play worse than the man whose
place you are taking. Be seated."

He stretched out his hand and began to shuffle the bamboo squares lying
on the table. The house echoed with the rattle of these pieces of
bamboo. Ming So shook his head suddenly, and Lien Fa wiped her eye with
her handkerchief.

"I wish you would dry your hair properly," she said, as she resumed
shuffling.



CHAPTER XXI VIEWS OF A CRIME


"No: I have no use for men now," said The Lily. "I have had too much to
do with them. All men are the same--they take what they can get from
women and give nothing in return. No--I desire a quiet home in the
country, where I can keep chickens and perhaps a pig or two. I have
enough money saved for that."

"You are talking nonsense," said Ming So, sitting by her side on the
edge of the paddy-field. A breath of wind stirred the fine blades of
young rice, and the movement travelled across the field like a wave in
shot silk. "You cannot live happily without men, or the gods would not
have put men in the world. The gods are not wasteful. And as for you,
Lien Fa, I think that you should remember what jealousy led you to do,
and how nearly your crime was blamed on the innocent Yang Fei."

It was the girl's turn to be puzzled.

"Crime? Ming So, what crime? What crime, pray, have I committed?"

He stared at her. "But you must be curiously constituted," he said, "not
to reckon as a crime the murder of Loo Ching."

"The murder of Loo Ching? What do you mean? Ming, you are joking."

"I am not joking. And I think that it is very bad taste on your part to
speak thus lightly of one whom you loved."

"I never loved Loo Ching," she said. "I pretended to love him--but
what is this about murder? I know nothing of it."

"You mean--I cannot believed it. You are denying it because you think
that I would have nothing more to do with one whose hands were stained
with the blood of a guest."

"Ming So, I swear that I do not know of what you are speaking. Listen:
after Loo Ching and I had left you in your bedroom, I packed my things,
or some of them, and went away. The lady Tung had said that I could go
away when you two were safely locked in. Then she was to go to Loo Ching
in my room... Tell me what has happened."

"I will tell you what I know. But there is mystery here. I woke, to find
myself alone. Yang Fei had gone. I thought, as I woke, that I had heard
a cry, so I got out of bed and went to Yang Fei's room. She was not
there, but on the bed lay Loo Ching, warm but quite dead."

"Men must die," said The Lily; "but it is more pleasant for them to die
naturally. Go on."

"When I saw that Loo Ching was dead, I was silent with horror, and so I
went to your room. Yang Fei was there. She said that Loo had let her out
of my room while I still slept, and had taken her with him to her own
room. Then, because he told her that you were asleep next door and
because she knew, also, that I was asleep and did not wish to wake me,
she dared not cry out. So he did what he wanted to do. Afterwards, she
said, you came in and stabbed him where he lay. Then she heard you go
back to your room, pack up your things, and go away. She went to your
room when all was silent, not daring to lie longer with a dead man. You
had gone, and she was sitting there, alone on your bed, when I came in
and found her. So then I went to the room of the noble lady. She was
sleeping, as was the man with her, so I telephoned, very softly, to the
police, and they came and took the body away."

"Go on," said Lien Fa.

"At first they thought that it was Yang Fei who had killed him, and so I
said that she had lain in my bed all the night. Then they found out that
this was not true, and began to suspect me. Afterwards, when Yang Fei
heard that they suspected me, she told the truth, and so you are thought
to have killed Loo Ching. If you did not, who did?"

"Surely even you can see that? Why, the noble lady Tung, of course! Who
else? It was always arranged that he should be thought to be with me,
since then his father would not suspect."

"Why his father, Lien Fa?"

"She desired, as I was telling my father yesterday..."

"Your father?"

"Of course! Why did you think that I was here? My father always affords
me shelter when I come to him on holiday. Well--I was telling him that
Tung and his wife desired to mortgage the business, because they could
not sell it, with the Government intending to close all the houses. So
she made friends with Loo Heng, who is a director of her bank, and the
idea was to make the bank lend her the ten thousand dollars to ransom
Tung. My father was to get a thousand for his part in the affair. With
the remaining nine thousand, the two of them intended to go to Hong
Kong, where the British Government allows houses such as ours, and there
to start business again."

"But why did she kill the son, Loo Ching? Surely that would not assist
her plan?" insisted the boy.

"She was jealous of this girl Yang Fei, whom she so suddenly found had
taken her lover from her. Not that it seems to have been Yang Fei's
intention to do so. But, you see, he went from her, leaving her asleep,
and found the Yang girl. I had gone by then, of course. The lady Tung
woke, found him gone, and snatched up my knife in one of her not
infrequent passions."

"This is all nonsense, Lien Fa. You are inventing it for me, to try to
make me believe that you did not kill Loo Ching. For how could she go to
spend the night with Loo Ching, as you suggest, when all the time his
father, Loo Heng, was in her own room? Besides, both she and Loo Heng
were there, asleep, when I went to telephone for the police."

The girl rose to her feet. "Let us go back to the house, if you do not
believe me," she said. "But you should know that she always gave Loo
Heng a sleeping-medicine in his rice when Loo Ching, the son whom she
loved, was coming to the house, and you should also know that, through a
closed door, it is impossible to tell if footsteps go to right or left
along the passage. When Yang Fei, sitting distraught on her bed like the
little fool she is, thought that she heard me moving about, she really
heard Tung's wife return to her own bedroom, where she pretended to be
asleep when you came, conveniently, to provide evidence that, since she
was sleeping with the father, she could not have killed the son. But you
do not believe me, and so it does not matter. Let us return into the
house."

"It is difficult to believe, but I think that I do believe you," said
the boy. "I cannot do otherwise, for I do not think it possible for
women to simulate such surprise as you did when I told you of the murder
of Loo Ching." Then he enquired with solicitude: "Did you love him, or
was it just business?"

But Lien Fa made no reply to this as they walked back together. When
they reached the house, she said: "You will see that what I have said is
true, when she comes, in three days, to pay my father the money. Then
you will believe."

"In the excitement of your story, I had forgotten that surprising
relationship," replied Ming So. "Am I supposed to know that the brigand
is your father?"

"He is not a brigand now," she answered. "Lien Wo is a man of peace. But
I think that you had better know nothing about it until he tells you.
That would be the wiser course."

"I will be ignorant," he said, "it is always better to have a secret
with a girl--life thus is more exciting."

She laughed, and went with him into the house.



CHAPTER XXII SCENA


PAI MEI knelt, very much alone, before the great image of Buddha. The
only human figure in that vast room she seemed to typify the futility of
man in the face of the eternal gods. But, in actual fact, little Pai Mei
was conscious, at the back of her praying mind, of a strange and
irrepressible doubt which assailed her. Was it really of any avail, this
mewing one's sorrows, like a cat with earache, in the conjectured
hearing of an image? Did Buddha really hear--did Buddha take the
slightest interest in her little affairs?

Then orthodoxy descended like a pitiless heel on the small insect of her
doubt, and Pai Mei prayed the more fervently because she did not quite
believe.

Outside, the sun was shining.



CHAPTER XXIII THE BLACK BOX


"YES, it is true that I am afflicted with nervousness," said Loo Heng,
his hand tapping insistently on the arm of his blackwood chair. "And
your presence here does not in any way help to allay that nervousness,
my dear Tung Nan Tsz. That you, at a time like this, should set all
tongues wagging by coming here to see me in my own house, is in the
highest degree unwise." He looked round him at the walls of the noble
room in which they sat, his eye dwelling for an instant in turn on each
of the magnificent examples of the ivory-carver's art, the skill of the
worker in brass, in blackwood... "It has taken me a long while and
much stifling of conscience to accumulate these things," he mused, as if
to himself.

Tung's wife smiled as she inspected with satisfaction the almond-shaped
nails on her lap before her. At a time like this men needed very
delicate handling, she reflected. But her voice showed nothing of the
thoughts in her mind.

"In two days now it will be over. Your troubles will cease. May I
venture to ask if you have arranged the little matter with the bank of
which you are a director?"

"That is, of course, arranged," he replied. "There was difficulty. One
would almost imagine that some evilly disposed person had been
gossiping, that the news had spread that I have mortgaged, also, this
house and all that it contains. But eventually I succeeded. Only nine
thousand dollars, though--they would not go to the full amount of ten
thousand. I fear that news of the intention of the interfering
Government has reached the general public."

"My dear Heng! You should not speak so disrespectfully of the Government
of which you yourself are a member," she bantered.

"Wit is all very well in its place," he returned. "And its place is in
women's bedrooms and the _salons_ of the literary. Let us stick to the
main facts. Here are the documents for the mortgage for you to sign, as
you may do in the regretted absence of your husband. Poor husband, who
knows so little and trusts so much! Here, in the space provided...'Tung
Nan Tsz'...A fine signature. Now we will put this away. Is there
other business on which you wished to see me? Every moment with you here
in my house fills me with foreboding. It is easy for a man to leave his
house and go pleasantly astray, but when his pleasures come to meet him,
then danger comes too."

"Must all your birds be of an unlucky colour?" she demanded petulantly.
"You see danger where none exists. Take care then, Loo Heng, lest by
seeing danger you expose yourself to it. For the brave are the blind, in
my opinion."

He picked up a slab of jade from the table by his side. "Wisdom is a
dear commodity," he said, reading the inscription from the slab: "for to
buy wisdom one must pay with wisdom." He sighed and set the tablet down.
"I wish those two days had passed. I must be getting old, thus to fret
my spirit with uncalled-for misgivings. I plead in excuse that I still
feel the loss of my son, in circumstances of much disgrace. Fortunately
the disgrace merely brushed by me, leaving no marks. My wife, and her
women also, yet mourn immoderately. For, as no doubt you, a married
woman, will admit, children are an expense and a trouble, and their long
dependence ill consorts with so sudden an exit from life's stage as that
of Loo Ching. Even now the police tell me that there is no trace of the
girl Lien Fa. Would that I had my hands on her!"

Tung's wife rose. "I must go," she said. "Put the money into bearer
bonds, so that when you and I reach Hong Kong no difficulty may occur."

"I wish that you would come away now," he said, and took her hand.
"After all, there is nothing more to be gained by staying in Kwei Sek.
Let us go together."

"No--I will not go until I have done that which I set out to do. There
are only two days left now. Be patient, and you shall have your reward."
She pressed his hand and went out by the hidden entrance. Loo Heng
sighed deeply and took up again his tablet of jade.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Next day, Loo Heng walked the few paces which separated his house from
the river, and, just as dusk was falling, hired the first sampan whose
owner accosted him, instructing the man to make for the coaster which
would sail at dawn to-morrow for Hong Kong. He intended to spend the
night on board, and on the morrow Tung Nan Tsz should be back from her
up-river errand. He wished that she had not insisted on going to see
that foolish old Tung Lai Luk had been quietly despatched. How trusting
some husbands were! That old Tung should play the part of a captive for
a whole month, in the hope that he, Tung Lai Luk, was going with his
wife to Hong Kong, while all the time Tung Lai Luk would be quietly
sleeping the eternal sleep somewhere amongst the river reeds, and his
widow, consoled by the presence of her real lover, Loo Heng, would be
safely away _en route_ for the only place in China where Chinese justice
could not reach her! That was, if the police ever found out, which was
unlikely. The only obviously shady side of the whole affair was the
mortgaging of "The Happy Heart" and of Loo Heng's own house. He was
conscious, as he sat in the sampan, of a twinge of remorse at the idea
of his family finding him gone and the roof sold over their heads.

But these thoughts, these half-regrets, vanished as the sampan threaded
its way towards the coaster. Loo Heng took his hand from the little
shiny box wherein lay all his worldly wealth, and turned to survey the
lit strip of city which he was now leaving for ever. How many unworthy
transactions had he made there! How many bribes had he received! Now all
that was over, and there would be, amongst the officials of Kwei Sek,
none of the old school like himself, only the idealistic youngsters who
foolishly imagined that the business of Government could be carried on
without recourse to the methods of the old régime. All that was over.
Now a contract for the Public Works Department would be determined by
considerations of equity. No more would a "present" be an essential
preliminary to a business deal...

Loo Heng, sitting there in the sampan, felt almost sad at thus
witnessing in his own person the passing of the glory that was graft.
Above him, on the high bows of the coaster which was his objective, a
man sat fishing, his line visible against a green strip of sky which
still remained, a single perfect black catenary curve on the green, from
the black bows of the steamer to the placid water over which the sampan
passed. Loo Heng smiled appreciatively at the beauty of the quiet
picture, for a taste for loveliness cannot be denied even to absconding
public servants.

Then there was a sudden crash, as a huge case of merchandise, slipping
from the hands of the coolies on the deck of the steamer, fell on the
bows of the frail sampan, ripping through them as if through paper. Loo
Heng heard the fisherman cry: "Quick--before the sampan sinks!" and
rose to his feet as the water poured in through the broken planking.

But when he turned to clutch his all-important box, his hand touched
only the splashed and tilting deck.

"Help!" called Loo Heng, as his feet sank with the shattered sampan. But
no help came. The man who had rowed the sampan was swimming steadily
towards the shore. After all, he had no reason for complaint, since he
had been given a new sampan already, advance pay for his actions in
tying a knot in a fishing-line, so that it was tied to the box which had
lain on the deck... The fisherman on the bows of the coaster had
hauled up his line a little, but only a little, for the catch was a
heavy one, and as Loo Heng sank for the second time a fast motor-boat
swept under the bows of the coaster, carrying with it the fisherman's
line and the black box firmly tied to the end of that line. "Help!"
cried Loo Heng, seeing for the last time the pale violet of the sky
above him, the black mass of the steamer's bows, and hearing the shouts
which denoted the attention of the ship's crew--shouts which were too
late to be of much interest to Loo Heng, whose last conscious thoughts
were of the unpalatable nature of slightly salt river-water.

In the launch, Tung Nan Tsz, on her way upriver, opened Loo Heng's black
box. When she had located the bonds, she heaved a sigh of relief. There
had been the risk that the fool would carry them in his pocket...

"Haste: there is much to do to-night," she said, and at her words the
motor-boat quivered at full throttle, heading up-river in the dark.



CHAPTER XXIV THE HONEST BRIGAND


"TIME," observed Lien Fa's parent regretfully, "speeds on with unseemly
disregard for the feelings of such of us as would have time stand
still." He sat at his ease at the opium divan.

"That is true," answered Ming So. "Yes: I have often found what the poet
calls 'a jade minute' pass as though it were but the flicker of a bat's
wing."

"Who told you about jade minutes?" said the other in an amused voice.
"You know both too much and too little. For instance, did you know that
the girl Lien Fa is the daughter of me, Lien Wo? Did you know this?"

Ming So dissimulated. "I might have known," he said, "that so delightful
a daughter must have had so distinguished a father. But one does not
think of these things until, like a pheasant rising from the grass at
one's feet, they are clear for all to see."

"Your conversation is literary," replied Lien Wo. "I admit that your
conversation is literary. But, then, you have had opportunities, mixing
as you have done with people like your uncle and your aunt."

"I have found little to learn from my uncle, and nothing from my aunt,"
answered the boy. "Rather have I picked up such jewels of knowledge as I
possess from the gutter of opportunity. That phrase about the jade
minute, for instance..."

"Well?" demanded Lien Wo, as the boy seemed to hesitate.

"I forget. And then"--he hurried on--"your own conversation,
elder-born, is replete with the wisdom that comes to a man with ripening
years. Your youth must have been an active one."

"It was," said Lien Wo, with regret in his voice. "More active than even
you, perhaps, imagine. Ah, those were the days! Then we recked not over
much of law and order. Each man's right hand was his government, and
none said him nay."

"An exciting picture," Ming So agreed. "And now you find life dull?"

"Yes, dull, because it is not dangerous. Ai-ah, I am getting old.
Discretion sets her drab foot on adventure..."

"A lovely phrase!" cried the boy.

"... and I do not even follow, now, where opportunity leads. Look at
Tung, now! There is a man for you. Risk--risk everywhere. His wife
thinks that, since she has promised me payment, I shall do her bidding.
Tung Lai Luk, wily old fox, knows what she has told me to do. She will
have a rude shock when she comes here."

"My aunt is coming here? Why?"

"She comes in the hope, little one, of being a widow. Ah, it is so easy
to arrange--an accident, a slip in the reeds on the bank of the river--but
I have not the heart to do it. The virtue is gone out of me. I am
an old man."

Ming So got up.

"It is gratifying to me to hear that my uncle's life is safe, even if
the reason for that safety is not flattering to you. I have long
wondered why my uncle was staying here alone in this house. At first I
feared for him--then, when I realised the nature of his host, my fears
departed. But, Lien Wo, apart altogether from this matter of your
changing your mind at the dictates of your better feelings, there is
another sad business nearing us. You are not aware of the happenings at
'The Happy Heart'?"

"I know nothing save what my daughter tells me, and that is only what
she desires me to know," complained Lien Wo. "Tell me more."

"It is matter of police, I fear. You see, when Loo Ching was murdered,
it was thought to be your daughter who killed him."

For a moment parental pride shone in the eyes of Lien Wo. Then he said:
"But that is absurd. Lien Fa would not harm a beetle. She is kind,
always. You know how kind she is."

"I do," assented Ming So, thinking of himself and Yang Fei, shivering
and blushing at the same time while The Lily and her lover looked on.
"As you say, she would not harm a beetle. Yet the police think it was
she who killed Loo Ching, stabbing him in the back as he lay in the bed
of Yang Fei."

"What you say is interesting, but it does not closely concern me. My
daughter, whom I sold for no inconsiderable sum to Tung Lai Luk a number
of years ago now, can quite safely be trusted to look after her own
interests. Yes, she brought a good price. But, then, she is undoubtedly
a beauty. Do you not think so? Still"--he hesitated--"what you tell
me merely confirms me in my intention not to attempt to earn the money
which Tung's heartless wife promises me."

"What is it, O earner of money in strange ways, that she desires you to
do?"

"Of that, little boy, I shall not speak openly, for evil does not exist
until it is done or spoken of. No: be content that your news of the
murder has confirmed me in the course of virtue to which my natural
tendencies would probably have led me in any event."

The boy pressed him no further, but when chance offered later he took
Tung Lai Luk for a walk amongst the paddy-fields, where a man may be
quite sure that conversation is heard only by those for whom it is
designed.

"Lien Wo has been promised money by your honourable wife if he kills
you," said the boy.

"I was not unaware of that possibility. Lien Wo and I are very good
friends, although my wife fortunately does not know this. In fact..."
He paused, as if changing the subject. "You have considerable ability in
worming out information from those with whom you talk. Notice the blades
of rice in these fields at which we are looking. Notice the pale green,
the perfection of tint, melting on the half-horizon to the hills and
thence to the infinite sky. Consider these blades of rice, and reflect
that you, Ming So, desire to make two blades of scandal spring where but
one grew before. Do not, then, be so anxious to perform your verbal
agriculture, my nephew, if you wish men to attach to your words the
importance which you yourself hold to be their due."

"I am sorry, my uncle, that you should think this of me, but I was so
horrified when I heard of her projects... How was I to know this of
your honourable wife? Is such a state of affairs to be expected?"

Tung Lai Luk laughed. "Nonsense, little one. Do not try to make me
believe that you are as innocent as that. Now, run along, and remember
never to think either the worst or the best of a man or a woman until
you have some sure basis for that judgment of them."

Ming So sniffed. He disbelieved in secret diplomacy.

And Tung Lai Luk, not for the first time in his life, marvelled at the
ways of women. Who would have thought that his wife, when he agreed to
the kidnapping idea as a convenient means of extracting money from his
friends, would have added to his plan this plan of her own, the plan of
having him quietly killed? Killed, mark you, so that she might retain
the ransom money! Really, these women! He would have to be careful, for
Lien Wo was always capable of changing his mind where his pocket was
concerned...

Tung Lai Luk reflected that he was not at all to blame over this matter.
The onus lay on the new Government of China, whose expected policy of
suppressing such houses as "The Happy Heart" had made it so difficult to
raise money on them in ordinary, legitimate ways. Yes, the Government
was to blame.

Tung Lai Luk heaved a sigh of righteous indignation at his wife and his
Government, and prepared to act accordingly.



CHAPTER XXV PO FENG HSI LOSES HIS TEMPER


THE Chief of Police sat in his office. Before him lay a letter couched
in unusually flowery language--a short letter, nevertheless.

_"To the honourable lady Tung,"_ it read.

"All preparations have been made by the unworthy writer of this letter
for the reception of your noble self on the date appointed. The matter
which you have entrusted to him will be despatched before your eagerly
awaited coming. He has not completed the business hitherto, because not
all tastes are alike in the determination of the length of time during
which a pigeon should hang in summer. But the pigeon struts in the
fowl-yard, ignorant of its impeding fate.

"The writer trusts that his inadequate deeds will not meet with too
great condemnation from the honourable lady Tung.

"LIEN WO."


Po Feng Hsi sighed. A constable tapped on the door and indicated a
caller. The Chief of Police sighed again and nodded permission. Shortly
the little sewing-maid from "The Happy Heart" stood before him.

"It is very dangerous for me to come here," she said; "but the girl Yang
Fei has always treated me with kindness, and so I dared the beating
which the noble lady Tung will undoubtedly give me on my return."

Smiling at the child, "Go on; tell me," he said.

"Well, this afternoon my mistress broke in the door of Yang Fei's room
and, seeing me in the passage, told me to run away. After a little
while, when I was downstairs, two men descended to the street, bearing
the coffin of the honourable Tung Lai Luk, which, as is the custom, he
keeps in the house in preparation for the day when he will _travel to
the West._ They carried this coffin away, and the porter said that they
were taking it to the river, to a boat. I did not think much of this at
the time, because I was just going to eat my rice, but afterwards I went
upstairs, and Yang Fei's room was empty. Nowhere can I find Yang Fei,
who wa kind to me, and I fear that my mistress has killed her and taken
her away in Tung's coffin."

"But why should she do that?" asked Po Feng Hsi, getting to his feet.
"We must see at once. You return, now, as fast as your legs will bear
you, to 'The Happy Heart.' We shall be there nearly as soon. Run!" He
sounded the gong on his table.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Some rumour of impending police activity seemed to have preceded the
Chief of Police, for in the narrow thoroughfare of Frog's Lane a crowd
had already started to collect. Po Feng Hsi impatiently pushed his way
past the porter of "The Happy Heart"; a posse of four police followed.
The porter, to whom excitements such as this constituted a welcome break
in the days' monotony, sat with open mouth. Another policeman, outside
the brass bars, affixed a notice, and behind him a jostling crowd craned
over his shoulders to see what was written thereon. They read:

CLOSED BY ORDER OF THE POLICE.

Upstairs, Po Feng Hsi hastened from room to room, cursing silently
(since he was on duty) at his foolishness in leaving the girl Yang Fei
exposed to possible dangers after the accomplishment of the task which
he had set her. Soon a stream of girls and women, carrying bundles of
prized possessions, descended the stairs and gathered in the
entrance-hall, shepherded by grinning constables whose purses, so far,
had seldom allowed them access to these hidden and expensive delights.

Po Feng Hsi descended the stairs. Nearing the foot, he called for
silence.

"Where is the mistress of this house, and where is the girl Yang Fei?"
he demanded of the assembled girls, and immediately a babble of
information arose. When he had satisfied himself that there was no later
news than that which he had already heard from the little girl, he
proclaimed: "This house is closed henceforth for its accepted purpose.
Pending the return of its owners, it will be managed by the police as a
hostel for girl workers of the Government silk factory. Those of you who
wish to work in the factory will apply to the constable on duty at the
door, who will give you authority to go there. Those who do not wish to
work in the factory must be out of here in half an hour. Permission to
use the telephone will be given for that half hour." For he knew that
many of these girls would be telephoning to their lovers the glad news
that their freedom now needed no capital payment...

As the Chief of Police stepped down to the foot of the stairs the porter
came up to him.

"And I?" he demanded. "Is it a just thing that a man's employment should
be taken from him thus suddenly, through no fault of his own? If you
offer employment to these girls, you must offer it to me, who am much
more responsible."

Some of the nearest girls laughed, knowing exactly how responsible the
porter was. Po Feng Hsi pushed the porter impatiently aside and went out
to his ricksha. A hurried call on the police telephone might yet catch
the launch. He wished that Kung's literary advice were available.

After the usual delay, he heard the voice of the inspector up-river.
"No," said the voice; "I cannot stop the launch, for it passed us over
an hour ago, proceeding up-river much faster than any of the police
launches can go. Shall I telephone to the next station?"

"Yes. Hold the launch and all on board under arrest, and open any
coffins on board," barked Po Feng Hsi. He heard the inspector's gasp of
astonishment as he put back the receiver. "Order the fastest launch we
have," he cried to the station chief.

"Unfortunately," replied that official, "I have to report that our
fastest boat has been stolen, and would appear to be the very one which
proceeded up-river last night."

At this state the Chief of Police became horribly unintelligible.



CHAPTER XXVI THE MOUSE-TRAP AND THE TIGER


TO-NIGHT the moon, a flame-yellow bubble, hung just over the low bank of
clouds in the west. It seemed as if the great circle of colour were
about to form a drop at its lower edge, to pour a drop slowly into the
darkness of the cloud-bank. The fields across the river were flooded
with moonlight, but seemed in darkness, so intense was the glare of the
moon: nearer, a rippling, widening cone of gold ran flickering from the
shadow of the further bank to lose itself under the rushes which climbed
almost to the feet of the group now seated about a small fire on the
rank grass of the river edge. A faint wind disturbed the flames of the
fire, and effaced, for a moment only, the outlines of the pathway of
light on the water. Behind, the trees began, and behind these again
stood, invisible from the river, the house of Lien Wo.

"It is a pleasant night," said Tung Lai Luk, reclining on one elbow.

"True," Lien Wo laughed softly. "Since I abandoned a life of crime--for
which you, Tung Lai Luk, should be thankful--I have learned to
appreciate the beauties of nature."

"It is indeed a _jade moment,_" volunteered the boy Ming So, though he
had not been addressed, in what was fast becoming his favourite phrase.
"The moon..."

"There is a rabbit in the moon," said the fourth member of the group,
the girl Lien Fa, in the familiar opening words of a fairy-tale which is
told to very small children.

"You are a foolish woman," retorted the boy, holding her hand as she sat
by her side in the firelight. "And you have forgotten again, to-day, to
wash my own clothes, so that I sit here beside you looking very like a
girl myself. You are foolish, for anyone but a foolish woman would begin
to compose a poem about the moon, instead of telling a silly
fairy-story, fit only for children. If Yang Fei were here, she would put
you to shame, for she would recite a poem about the moon, even if she
could not write one."

A figure advanced towards the group from the direction of the house.

"If I may be so discourteous as to intrude my unworthy person into your
gathering..." he began, when Ming So shouted in his joy.

"Elder-born! If it is not Kung Hiao Ling, the literary man. Why, that is
exactly what we needed. A poem about the moon..."

"Be silent, frog!" smiled Kung. "I am here," he went on, "as a
representative of justice--a role which fits me as ill as this boy's
clothes appear to fit him." For Ming So, in the pyjamas of the girl Lien
Fa, partook a little noticeably of the grotesque.

"It is on this night, is it not, that the arrival of the evil woman Tung
Nan Tsz is expected? I should wish to be here in order to receive her."

Lien Wo, secretly, was glad of his present innocence.

"You are very welcome," he said. "After your walk--I presume that you
walked--you must be suffering from that pleasant fatigue which fits
perfectly with a cup of wine. Will you have one before you proceed with
your story?"

"I never refuse wine," said Kung; "a matter of some slight expense to my
politer friends. Ah, this is a good vintage! Yes: I knew that I should
find you if I followed the boy, and fortune favoured that, for when I
reached the village of Nam Pa everyone was speaking of him. It appeared
that, as he passed through the countryside, there passed with him a
strange and unmistakable odour--the smell of dried fish. So I listened
to what they had to say and followed their directions. Thus I came to
your house without difficulty. Then, not desiring to trouble you with my
presence until the evening of the day when the ransom for Tung Lai Luk
was due to be paid, I returned to the village, where I have quietly
passed my time in the enjoyment of the local wine--a vintage which was
new to me. And now I fear that we have no time for further questions,
for I seem to hear your sentry giving us warning of the approach of
someone whom he expects."

Up the bank ran a man towards Lien Wo.

"A boat approaches, with such a roar of sound as made me think that the
seven devils were in the boat."

"Heap up the signal-fire!" ordered Lien Wo. "Tung, assume your place and
strive to play the part of a dead man. The rest of you--into the
nearest bushes, and listen."

"I look for entertainment which will be more than payment for my walk,"
said Kung Hiao Ling as he departed for the shelter of the bushes, making
sure that he was within easy revolver range of the rest, for he was not
minded to leave anything to chance.

The roar of the motor-boat ceased, and the glare of the powerful
headlight cut across and dimmed the ladder of the moon on the river.
Tung Lai Luk had dragged a coffin out of the shadow beyond the circle of
firelight, and now lay down in it. Lien Wo stood beside the fire,
waiting. In the bushes Ming So and Lien Fa held hands, like children at
the theatre.

Then up the bank staggered two men with a burden, which they laid by the
fire. Tung Nan Tsz walked beside them.

"Greetings, Lien Wo!" she said. "I see that we have two coffins here. A
fortunate precaution, was it not, for me to bring that of my husband? It
is the only wifely duty towards him which I feel inclined to perform.
Now, as to its occupant. Have you done that which you promised? Open the
second coffin which you have here, and show me."

Lien Wo lifted the lid. Within lay Tung Lai Luk, his hands folded in an
attitude which suggested that he had died peacefully. "My fee, noble
lady," said Lien Wo, who did not easily forget little matters like this.
He wished that he were not quite so alone--the two men whom she had
brought with her stood beside the woman, and he had not reckoned on
this. So he directed their attention to the coffin which had been
carried up from the launch. "Open it," he said, and the men moved
forward to obey.

"There is a further present for you, there in that coffin," said Tung
Nan Tsz. "I had no further use for the girl, and she had angered me, so
I brought her for you to use as you thought best. Here is your reward,
in money"--she handed Lien Wo a wad of notes--"and there in flesh."

For the coffin-lid had been removed, revealing Yang Fei, trussed hand
and foot, and gagged.

"But this is a very handsome present," said Lien Wo, as he bent over the
girl in the coffin. He hoped that, while the attention of Tung Nan Tsz
and her men was thus directed, an attack might be made from the rear. So
he continued his praise of Yang Fei, laying there in the coffin with
only her eyes moving. "I am honoured by your forethought, for while a
payment in cash is pleasant, how much more pleasant is payment in the
body of a young girl like this. I am, it is true, past middle age, but,
even so, I feel now emotions which have long lain hidden." Why did not
the woman reply, or Kung lead on the attack? Then, sounding hollowly
from the other coffin, he heard an unmistakable sneeze. On the sound,
Tung's wife cried to her men.

"To the boat! It is a trap! Run!" she called.

Lien Wo turned. In the flickering light of the fire he could see Tung
Lai Luk, sitting foolishly upright in his coffin. From the river bank
came the sound of flying feet, and with a roar the engine of the
motor-boat broke into life.

"They have escaped you!" cried Tung Lai Luk. "Why did you not stop the
evil woman?"

"I could not," answered Lien Wo. "Did you not see that she had with her
two men, and that both she and her men were armed? Do I desire to _go
finally to the West_ before I have reached a ripe old age? What could I
do? I occupied her with conversation, hoping that the others would
attack while I held her attention. Fancy choosing such a moment to
sneeze! The fault is yours. All would have been well if you had not
sneezed."

"How can a man forgo sneezing when a woman scatters pepper over him?"
Tung Lai Luk complained. "She scattered it over my face as if I were a
piece of meat to be rendered appetising. I suppose she wished to see if
I were really dead. How little trustful are women!"

Kung Hiao Ling emerged from the darkness beyond the light of the fire.

"It is fortunate," he observed, "that she did not think of making the
test as to your being alive by the simple expedient of making sure with
a dagger or a revolver bullet. It seems to me that a nose full of pepper
is better than a belly fully of steel or lead. You are lucky, Tung Lai
Luk. She is a more evil woman that I had expected. I could not fire
because, in this darkness, I could not be sure who was friend, who foe.
And Ming So, who at any rate was not lacking in courage, whatever one
may say of his discretion, was pushed off the back of the motor-boat by
the woman. Here he is now."

The boy Ming So presented an unattractive figure, for he had fallen into
the mud which bordered the river, and his borrowed garments were now no
longer gaudy. He had fallen over backwards from the departing stern of
the motor-boat, and half his face, too, was muddy. But, despite this, he
was the first to remember Yang Fei, lying there bound and gagged in the
coffin.

"Hurry," cried the boy. "Have you no belly of compassion, that you let
her remain in a coffin as if she were dead?" For to him Yang Fei meant
just a little more than to the rest. He remembered the "Ballad of
Everlasting Wrong," and the night in Kwei Sek when he had gone to sleep
naked on her lap in the locked room... He tore at the fastenings of
her gag, and the others came to help him.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

When Yang Fei had been released from her bonds and was restoring the
circulation in her limbs in front of the fire, Lien Wo came over,
rubbing his hands.

"The girl is not damaged?" he enquired.

Tung Lai Luk turned on him in a fury. "You, muddler and bungler!" he
cried. "You! Interested in the possible damage to her, as if she were a
roll of silk, to be bandied about from owner to owner! I would have you
know that I bought this girl for good money, as my nephew here can bear
witness, that I bought her for good money from her father, who lives in
the village of Seung So, and that she belongs to me."

Kung Hiao Ling said, quietly: "Under the constitution of the Republic it
is illegal to buy and sell girls. I think that you, Tung Lai Luk, and
you, Lien Wo, might be better occupied than in your present wrangle
about a girl who belongs to neither of you, but to herself. So let us
have no more of this. There are more serious matters which concern us,
for I ought to return to the village and communicate to the Chief of
Police what has happened. But, since I know that the woman will expect
me to do so, (since it is the obvious thing to do), I shall not return.
It does not do to act as is expected. Therefore I shall listen to the
tale which the girl has to tell. Give her a cup of wine, to warm her
blood. I, also, could drink without discomfort, for it is late. Already
the dawn makes feeble efforts to overcome the glory of the moon."

"It is not fair," objected Lien Wo. "She was given to me, as was this
money, my payment for killing the woman's husband. I begin to wish, Tung
Lai Luk, that I had not been so squeamish."

Kung held out a hand for the notes, glanced at them, fingered one.
"Forgeries," he said, handing them back. "She was indeed a very evil
woman. Now"--and he completely ignored the curses of the ex-bandit--"tell
me your story, girl, and omit nothing."

Yang Fei trembled a little at the prospect of so large and unusual an
audience. "I was put in a coffin," she began hesitatingly, "and the lid
was put on, but not tightly." She began to warm up to her tale. "Then I
was carried to a boat, and after a while I heard the motor begin. I lay
in the coffin, unable to move. Then there was, after a time, a shout,
and the sound of a box moving on the deck, and I heard her voice."

"What did she say?" asked Kung.

"She said: 'Now that he is drowned and I have the money, there is little
else to do. Haste,' the woman called, 'for we must speed up-river, where
a husband awaits me.' That is all she said. After a long time, the boat
stopped and I was carried up here. The rest you know." She emptied her
wine-cup. "And now may I go to rest, for I am tired, and my limbs hurt
where the cord cut into them..."

Kung Hiao Ling led the way back to the house and issued orders as if he
were in his own rooms above the wine-shop in Kwei Sek. But nobody seemed
to think of disobeying him. Even Lien Wo, cursing still at the trick of
the forged notes, did not protest when Yang Fei was put to bed and left
with Lien Fa to watch by her side. Kung assembled them in the largest
room of the house. Outside, the dawn crept up as if pursuing the moon,
where it had sunk below the horizon opposite.

"We must take counsel together," he said, "though I fear that counsel is
useless at the moment. But I wish to collect the facts on paper so that
I may lay them before Po Feng Hsi, the Chief of Police, on my return to
the city, or may perhaps send them to him by police messenger. There
are, in this matter, more mysteries than one."

Ming So, who returned from washing at his moment, yawned. Old Kung was
apt to be prosy, he felt. Here was the hour of the ascent of the
morning, and Kung must go and collect evidence. Further, the new pair of
Lien Fa's pyjamas (a flaming red this time) fitted even less well than
the last pair had done.



CHAPTER XXVII THE ODYSSEY OF AN OPTIMIST


THE little girl Pai Mei, squatting on her heels in the lean-to kitchen,
rocked gently back and forth like a small automatic figure. At intervals
the rhythm of her rocking was interrupted by a sob which shook her small
body; then she would return again to the endless slicing of beans from
the bowl on the mud floor in front of her.

Outside, a gentle wind disturbed the bamboos in the thicket, so that
they rustled in the distance almost as silk rustles. The pale moon above
the bamboos sent not enough light to show through the paper window
against the greater light of the hanging oil lamp in the kitchen, but
Pai Mei knew that the moon hung there, for she had just opened the door
and glanced out, shutting the door again hurriedly as Ming Nai's
querulous voice came to her from the living-room.

"Must you for ever be opening the door to let in the cold?" The voice
demanded this without eliciting a reply, and Pai Mei had quickly
returned to the slicing of her beans, while in her mind's mirror the
narrow sickle of cream-silver topped the tracery of the bamboos as it
used to do when she and Ming So went into the clump of an evening.

How many moons had passed since their parting? How many moons and how
few letters? He seemed to have so much else to do, so many other
interests than the little girl who now squatted on her heels,
sorrowfully slicing beans for her mistress. The gods in their pale
palaces of amber cloud above her alone knew what Ming So would be doing
now, she thought. Doubtless he had found some other girl, and forgotten
his promises to Pai Mei. Men were faithless creatures, blown by every
wind of fancy from girl to foolish girl, constant never, trading
affection against a moment's delight, following their inclinations
rather than clinging with a woman's constancy to one beloved.

A tear ran down one cheek and fell into the beans. She brushed off the
next tear and laid down the knife. This was a turning-point, she felt.
Had not the boy told her that, if Ming Nai became unbearable, Pai Mei
was to take the money for the journey from the medicine-chest and go to
join him in the city? That was the only way. She would wait until Ming
Nai was asleep, and then take the money and go. How much money? She did
not know, but it would be as well to take most of it, for you never knew
how much expense there would be. And, after all, the money as doing
nothing there in the drawer of the medicine chest, not even earning
interest...

Pai Mei's fingers flickered as she sliced beans, now that her mind was
made up.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

At the "hour of the rat" the moon now floated clear, high in the
purple-black velvet night. Everywhere stars were dusted on this sky,
carelessly, irregularly, as gems fall from the hand of a miser and glow
patiently in the lamplight. Just below the moon a single inexplicable
cloud hung, the only soft outline in all that cardboard sky. The wind
had dropped, and the tops of the tall trees bordering the rod to Ch'ang
Sui climbed to the fringe of the forest and seemed to have been frozen
there, in the last moment of their mad aspiring for a marriage of tree
and sky. The brilliance of the moon gave to the greenery a semblance of
partly seen whiteness, so that the small blue-clad figure of Pai Mei,
her thick paper soles silent on the dried mud of the road, might have
been moving in the vast drop-scene of some empty theatre as she steadily
plodded along the path towards the river. In an inner pocket lay nearly
all the money which Ming Nai had saved against a possible bad winter.

As she walked, Pai Mei sang softy to herself the "Ballad of Mulan," to
keep her company between the towering, clutching trees. Mulan had been
just such another girl as she, Pai Mei thought. Only Mulan had gone to
the wars to take the place of her father. She would like to go as a
soldier, too, marching, marching, as she was now across interminable
distances, in the Emperor's service. But there wasn't any Emperor
now--only a Republic, whatever that meant... Then she could come back from
the wars, and everyone would be surprised to find she was a girl. How
did it finish?

_"For the man hare gallops awkwardly And the woman hare's eye is wild,
But if they are running together, Who can tell which is which?"_

She came to the end of the song, and in the motionless silence between
the great trees the shuffle of her feet sounded like the movement of an
army...

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Ch'ang Sui was easy to negotiate. Arriving even before dawn, Pai Mei had
leisure to look round and make a few enquiries in an apparently casual
manner. It appeared, as the result of these enquiries, that a passenger
boat left at dawn for the next village, Seung So, whence, perhaps, she
might be able to obtain another boat down-river.

On board, she paid her passage-money and ate a stomachful of the dried
_lichees_ which she had bought in Ch'ang Sui. _Lichees_ were a luxury to
which she was unaccustomed, and she felt that it would be foolish, with
so much money at her disposal, to deny herself the pleasure of eating
them. Then she lay down amidst a pile of rope in the bows and fell fast
asleep...

She woke several hours later. In fact, the sinking sun told her that the
village of Seung So must be not very far off. She sat up amidst her coil
of rope and yawned. So far, so good. This travelling was an easy matter
if you only had the intelligence and the necessary money. The money--her
hand went to her jacket pocket, to find it empty.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

The two parents sat facing each other in Pai Kwat's private room. But it
was daylight now, and the little lamp above his head had not been lit.
On a chest against the wall lay the _I-Ching_--the Book of Changes. In
brass holders in the four corners of the room were stuck the thin
charred wooden sticks which had last night held on their upper ends
brownish, blunted cylinders of _heung_. The room still smelled faintly
acid, for the fumes of their burning had not completely disappeared, and
on Ming Nai's tongue, as she talked, the air taste with a suspicion of a
bitter tang.

"So she has gone--disappeared--and I have not the money to set on
foot enquiries as to her whereabouts," concluded Ming Nai.

"What you tell me fills me with misgivings as to my wisdom in allowing
her to go to live in your house," replied Pai Kwat. "For if a girl runs
away, two things must have caused it: first, she has been ill-treated;
and, second, she has not been fittingly instructed in the paths of
virtue by those to whom she has been entrusted. Yes, I begin to think
that I was very unwise."

Ming Nai was not in the least abashed. "You have," she replied "taken no
account of two other facts, both of which colour somewhat the blackness
of your picture. First, that the child ran away in order to go to my son
in the city. This, you must acknowledge, shows devotion and constancy.
Second, it is the first four years of a child's life which determine
that child's character, and during those four years she learned,
apparently, to take whatever money she happened to need from whomsoever
it might belong to. This, I think, reflects adversely on your own
treatment of the girl, Pai Mei."

Pai Kwat sat looking straight in front of him at a scroll on which was
written in characters of singular beauty and skill in caligraphy the
sentence: _Deal with the faults of others as gently as you deal with
your own._ But this was too difficult to act on, when this woman sat
there criticising his daughter.

"It is impossible for a roast fowl to lay eggs," he replied. "An
argument cannot be applied to only one fact of several--it must be
applied impartially to all. If I am to blame for my daughter's action, I
am equally to be praised for other actions of hers which are good. I may
be criticised for her taking the money without permission. But when you
advance her devotion and constancy, as you did a moment ago, I am to be
praised, on your own argument. When you talk thus, you must talk fairly.
The result of all your speech is that the girl is a mixture of good and
bad, even as I am, and even as you yourself are. Need we pursue that
line of argument further?"

Baffled (for she had hoped for either money or the offer of another of
the numerous Pai children), Ming Nai could not but agree.

"I suppose that you are right," she said. "And, even if you were not, it
is absurd to expect so learned a man to admit his error to a woman."

This touched Pai Kwat on his conscience, for there is a saying of the
Master, Confucius, to the effect that _to have faults and fail to amend
them, this is indeed to have faults_. And he knew that Ming Nai was
referring to this saying. So he observed, very humbly: "If I have
faults, I ought to admit them. If I have failed in her education, the
fault, then, is mine; I admit it. But surely you are exaggerating the
escapade? Either she will return or, as is more likely, she will safely
reach Kwei Sek and her beloved affianced. In either case, the outcome
will be felicitous. Why, then, repine? _The highest towers begin from
the ground,_ and I have little doubt that my daughter and your son will
eventually grow to be much like their parents."

Ming Nai rose. "Long visits bring short compliments," she observed. "I
am woman enough to prefer longer compliments. No--do not be so formal
as to ring for a parting cup of tea. I will take the will for the deed.
Now that my duty is done, and I have told you the facts so far as I know
them, my mind is at rest."

"Walk well, then," returned Pai Kwat, reflecting that now he would be
able to begin again his study of the _I-Ching_, in which he had been
interrupted by her arrival.

"Walk well, you also," said Ming Nai, as she went out, back to her empty
house.



CHAPTER XXVIII HOW TO MAKE A WIDOW


YANG FOO issued orders to his family.

"My wife, you will busy yourself with the evening food, as is your duty.
The two boys will fetch the water-buffalo to her new pasture, driving in
the stake for her rope very firmly indeed, for to-day she is restive
with the spring fever of animals, and desires to leave us. The girl
children will now fetch my nets, which have been mended, I hope, and
bear them to the boat. There, that is all, I think. There is a
sufficiency of time for a few breaths of leisure ere I start."

His aged wife stood before him, as is fitting even in the wife of a
fisherman-farmer. "All shall be done as you say," she agreed. "Oh, my
husband, I know that I am a foolish woman, but I cannot help repining."

He smiled. "Again? Can you never forget the sale of your daughter, Ah
Fei? Must you for ever be throwing in my teeth the poverty which
compelled us to sell the girl? There is no bottom to the well of the
foolishness of women! We have no such daughter. Let us forget our
daughter. Probably by now she is earning her rice, which is more than
you are, standing there wailing! What is done cannot be undone, and _it
is useless to repine over things that are past._" He rose to his feet.
"My wife, dry your tears and begin preparing the food against my return.
Your late daughter, whose state so concerns you, is doubtless lying now
in an honourable bed, and, after all, that is the end for which the gods
created women."

She followed him to the door and called after him. "Have a care," she
cried, "for the night is foggy here by the river, and a foot may slip..."

"To anticipate the tiger is as bad as meeting the tiger," was Yang Foo's
reply as he walked off towards the rive bank, where he could hear the
chatter of the girls, returning after setting his nets in the little
sampan. "Be comforted: even the worst has an end."

His wife wiped her eyes and went into the kitchen.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

"We shall just reach Seung So," said the coxswain of the motor-boat, "if
the patrol is sufficient. But I doubt whether, at that unimportant
village, we shall be able to buy more petrol without causing comment.
That is a matter for you to decide."

Tung Nan Tsz laughed scornfully.

"We do not desire to purchase petrol at Seung So. That would be the
height of folly. No--it is only a little distance now, and we shall
complete the journey in the sampan which I now see coming in this
direction. Steer towards it."

The coxswain knew better than to argue with his mistress. But he sniffed
audibly as he swung the wheel over and the motor-boat bore down on the
little craft whose one occupant, an old man, stood in the stern sculling
steadily downstream. In the bows lay a pile of fishing-nets.

The launch bumped alongside, and the second man jumped into the sampan.

"What a thing?" rose the protesting, thin voice of the old fisherman.
"What thing? You jump into my boat..." His voice subsided into a wet
grunt as the knife took him in the ribs. With a careless kick the man
from the motor-boat thrust the body into the stream.

Tung Nan Tsz looked carefully up and down the river. For the five
hundred yards before it curved towards the village there was not a soul
to be seen. Downstream, likewise, was empty.

"Lift the box into the sampan," she ordered, and the two men obeyed,
setting it down on the top of the nets. "Now: sink the launch, here in
mid-stream." She sat watching while, with an axe, the coxswain smashed
through the bottom boards and stepped into the sampan.

"You do your work badly," she said. "Look--the launch is sinking too
slowly." Both men gazed at the motor-boat, and Tung Nan Tsz drew an
automatic from the folds of her jacket and fired. These men constituted
the last piece of direct evidence against her. She fired twice, at
point-blank range, and gave the nearest man a push with her foot as he
fell, so that he splashed overboard, cursing. The coxswain coughed once
and lay still. The woman took the single scull of the sampan and, using
it as a lever, tilted the body into the stream. Then she removed a
slight blood-stain from the deck, where the coxswain had fallen, using a
piece of waste cloth from the bottom of the sampan, threw the rag into
the river, and leisurely took her place at the stern, driving the little
boat up-river towards the village of Seung So just round the bend.

The launch had filled and now took a sudden plunge, stern up, as the
weight of the engines dragged it under water.

Alone, on the mirror surface of the water, Tung Nan Tsz sculled the
sampan upstream in the gathering dusk.

By and by her muscles began to tire of the unaccustomed labour. Seung So
was farther off than she had thought, and the steady current made each
stroke of the scull a labour. She swung the sampan in towards the left
bank, and here, in the slightly slower water, made better progress. But,
even thus, Seung So remained tantalisingly round the corner, and dusk
fell quietly like a grey cloak on the calm river, the silhouetted reeds,
and the full purple cloud-bank.

Then, sitting on the bank level with the sampan, Tung Nan Tsz noticed a
small girl squatted, head on her hands, crying.

"Ho la!" called the woman in the boat. "Do you wish to earn money?"

The child lifted her head as the boat drew in. "Oh, yes," she replied.
"To earn money is the very thing which I desire, for I have none. I have
been sitting here for hours, seeing nothing through my tears..."

"Then came and aid me with this sampan," said the woman, "for I am late
in returning to the village, and dusk is falling."

"I will gladly help," Pai Mei said. "But I do not think that, even so,
we should reach Seung So in less than two hours, and I am weak from want
of food. Would it not be wiser to tie the boat to the bank and walk to
the village? I would look after the boat until your return."

The woman stepped out, holding the painter. "You have sense," she said.
"But we shall leave the boat, you and I, and go to the house which I see
at the far side of these paddy-fields, with a single lighted room. They
are probably poor people who will gladly sell us a night's lodging."

"Then you will not require my help," said Pai Mei, "for your box appears
light enough for you to carry yourself. But could I not earn the money
which you promised by remaining her to look after the boat? I am not
_very_ hungry, and to-morrow you could pay me." Once she could get
aboard the sampan, it would be easy to drift and scull down the stream,
towards Ming So...

"You will carry my box to the house, as I said," Tung Nan Tsz answered.
"I will pay you when it is necessary, but to-night you shall eat at my
expense. Come, here is the box for you to carry." She released her hold
on the painter as she handed to Pai Mei the shiny black case containing
the worldly wealth of the late Loo Heng.

"Ai-ah! The boat!" cried the girl, making an ineffectual attempt to
catch the gunwale of the retreating sampan.

"No matter, we shall not need it now," replied Tung Nan Tsz. "And
remember, child, that if I pay you for serving me, I pay you also for
keeping a silent tongue. You know nothing, you understand, of any such
boat or any such happenings. All that you know is that you met me on the
bank of the river and that I engaged you as my servant. Beyond that, do
not talk. Now, walk! For I am hungry, and even the single light yonder
means some sort of food. What is your name, child?"

Pai Mei, even at her tender age, had acquired some of that worldly
wisdom which comes early to those in poverty. And in her mind hovered
the memory of the money which she had taken and the possible penalty if
she was caught before she managed to reach the city and Ming So. She
therefore replied, without a moment's hesitation, smiling: "I am an
orphan. My father's name was Woo, but now he is dead, and I am going to
the city of Kwei Sek, to an aunt who lives in the Street of the
Dress-makers, and I had not seen anyone for hours, until you came in the
boat..." It was a safe reply, for Woo is a common name, and there is a
Street of the Dressmakers in every city.

Satisfied, Tung Nan Tsz walked along beside her. "You may call me
Mistress Pak," she said, giving another common surname, and left it at
that, as the two plodded on along the raised banks between paddy-fields,
towards the warm and comforting glow of the lit window in the house
ahead.

When they reached this house, Tung Nan Tsz knocked, and after a
shuffling and whispering an old woman came and peered through a hole in
the door.

"What business have you, when dark is falling?" she demanded.

"I desire shelter for the night for myself and this small servant of
mine," was the answer. "Open the door, for a chill rises from the
river."

"I dare not give you lodging," grumbled the old woman. "Until he returns
you may enter, and when he returns you may ask him. How many are you?"

"We are two only, I and this child," returned Tung Nan Tsz impatiently,
for she was not used to having her wishes disregarded. "Let us in, and
we will await his return, if you say that we must. Who, then, is this
'he'?"

The bar behind the door was lifted, the wood swung inwards, and in the
unaccustomed light Tung Nan Tsz blinked as she stepped across the
threshold, followed by Pai Mei.

"He is my husband, Yang Foo, and he is now laying his nets in the river.
He will not be above an hour," answered the woman. Her lined face and
toil-worn hands told of a precarious existence wrested from the soil.
"Until then you may sit down in this room, and if you will pay now I
will give you each a bowl of the rice which we are now about to make.
That is all which I can provide at the moment, for we are poor and did
not expect the honour of a visit."

Tung Nan Tsz drew money from a pocket. By no signs at all did she
indicate her knowledge that the family of Yang would wait in vain for
the return of Yang Foo, who was doubtless well down the river by now,
quite unconscious of what went on in the house.

"There is money," she said. "Now, produce your rice, for we are both
hungry, this girl and I."

Yang Foo's unwitting widow called orders, and shortly her smallest
daughter emerged with two bowls of steaming rice.

"My husband has two sons and six daughters, for we were compelled to
sell one to a merchant of Kwei Sek some weeks ago. This is the
youngest." Even in the poorest house there is a certain pride in
progeny, even in female progeny. "Come, set to and eat, and when he
comes back from the river we may talk about lodging."

Then the room was silent but for the steady click of chopsticks on cheap
china bowls.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

The meal was over. Rice-bowls had been removed and presumably washed.
Round the little brazier the family of Yang squatted, while their two
guests, unheeded, sat on the only available chairs. Pai Mei would have
felt much more at her ease--and much warmer--if she had joined the
squatting family, but she dared not, at the present juncture, initiate
an action. Her own position was not such that she could afford to take
risks with this strange woman whom chance had thrown in her way when all
other hope had failed and despair had crept towards her up the river
bank with the first mists of evening. She must remain dutifully
obedient, she must sink her own personality, until her pay had
accumulated sufficiently to allow her to proceed down-river to the city
of Kwei Sek in search of Ming So. Then she could tell the police, if
they paid her to do so, about the sunken launch which she had seen and
the revolver shots, and the three dead men in the river...

Of course, her childish analysis of the position admitted no such
advanced ideas as these--her reactions and thoughts were on a simpler,
lower plane, though they reached the same conclusion. Thus she sat
stiffly on the chair, envying the family of yang as they squatted round
their brazier.

After the time that it takes a man to plough two furrow of a
paddy-field, Tung Nan Tsz spoke.

"The master of the house is late," she said, "but I and my servant are
weary. Could we be shown to a room where we may sleep, for I am certain
that the honourable Yang Foo, when he returns, will not refuse us
shelter in his house."

The old woman by the brazier said: "He should be here now at any moment.
You will await him. It is not fitting for women to take decisions."

The elder of the two sons spoke now, a strapping lad of some seventeen
summers. "I think, mother, that when my father returns he will be angry
with us if we compel these visitors of ours to wait thus uncomfortably
for his arrival. Would he not rather wish us to provide them with a room
and settle in the morning what money it is fitting for them to pay?"

His mother nodded agreement. "Maybe you are right, and if, when my
honourable husband returns, he considers that we have done wrong, I
shall say that the idea was yours, my son." She rose to her feet and
opened the swinging doors of the room beyond the one in which they were
sitting. "Ah Yat! Ah Sam!" she cried, and the two eldest girls rose with
her. "Remove such things as it would not be fitting to leave in this
room, that our visitors may pas a comfortable night."

Pai Mei watched with relief, for, despite a bowl of rice, she was very
tired, and the indefinite postponement of her plans had brought tears
very near the surface...

When the little oil lamp had been blown out, Pai Mei lay in her borrowed
bedding listening to the regular breathing of her sleeping employer.
Outside, bull-frogs kept up their bell-chorus, and once, just before she
went to sleep, a gust of cold air blew in and a door slammed. Presumably
the two sons were going out to look for Yang Foo. But Pai Mei did not
remain awake in order to think of these problems. She laid her neck on
the hard wood pillow and was soon in a dreamless sleep.



CHAPTER XXIX THREE PROBLEMS


PO FENG HSI, Chief of Police for the city of Kwei Sek, sat now at a long
table in the small police station at Nam Pa, the village which lay one
day's journey by water up the river from the city where he normally
found more than enough crime to exercise his mind. But this matter of
the murder of Loo Ching, the son of the Kwei Sek Minister of Public
Works, the subsequent disappearance of Loo Heng, the Minister himself,
as well as of the boy Ming So, of Yang Fei, and her mistress Tung Nan
Tsz, together with the undoubted theft of one of his own police
launches, had so far incensed Po Feng Hsi that he had left the care of
the city's crimes in the hands of a subordinate, and was now spreading
wrath and inspiration round the little village of Nam Pa.

"The stolen launch passed Nam Pa, but has not reached the next day's
stop, Seung So?" he demanded.

"That is so," assented the local officer. "What do you deduce therefrom,
O unraveller of mysteries?"

"I deduce," said Po Feng Hsi, rising to his full height, "that the
launch is somewhere in between the two villages." A deferential silence
greeted this wild guess, and he went on: "You have notes of the time
when the launch passed Nam Pa, going upstream, and of the time when the
patch of oil, smelling of petrol, swept past Nam Pa on its way to the
sea?"

"We have notes of these," agreed the other.

"The stream runs, in the average, three feet a second, and the launch
was capable of a speed of fifty _li_ an hour. Now go and calculate how
far the launch must have gone upstream before she was deliberately sunk,
in order that the consequently freed petrol should reach Nam pa on the
bosom of the stream at the time which you have noted." He lit a
cigarette. "Now let Kung produce a more capable piece of detective
work!" he muttered to himself, as he went out of the police station,
leaving behind him perspiring policemen busy with clicking abacus,
writing-brush, and paper.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

At Lien Wo's house, Kung Hiao Ling was sitting pensively in the garden,
watching the river. Beside him lay a borrowed jade-studded opium pipe
and a paper-covered copy of the poems of Li Po. The boy Ming So appeared
from the house with a fresh supply of wine.

"Has inspiration followed in the footsteps of the grape?" the boy asked.

For answer Kung took up the book of Li Po's poems and read:

_"The nightjar wails its absent mate,
And Youth grows old amongst the hills_."

"Ah, Li Po was a poet! I think that our actions should be dictated less
by a desire to apprehend the evil woman Tung than by a desire to set
right some of the evil which she has brought about."

"You refer, O wise sir, to what?"

"I refer, Ming So, to your little friend Yang Fei, who has suffered
much, and must desire to return, at any rate for a time, to her father's
house. If I do not misunderstand the child--and indeed her knowledge
of geography is not great--she lives near Seung So, which is one day's
journey up the river. I proposed to take her there."

"But, master, the evil woman Tung..."

"The evil woman Tung also proceeded up-river. To eat two dishes with one
spoon amuses me at times. Will you come?"

"I will come wherever you go, Master, for I have never before met one
who so satisfactorily combines duty with delight, who so excellently
reads in the poets instructions for action. I will come with you, if you
will let me."

"Ask the remainder, then, what they feel, and if enough of them are
agreed on the need for a voyage up-river, we will hire men and a boat
from this village of Nam Pa. Go now, for I wish to read."

Ming So bowed profoundly and withdrew as Kung stretched out his hand for
the wine-jar.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

In the daylight Pai Mei realised how extremely sordid were the
surroundings of the house where they had found refuge and shelter. The
three rooms which she had seen were bare of every comfort and
convenience save those fundamental necessities which served to feed the
family and to protect them from the weather. Outside the house the
remains of a shed contained a primitive plough and a few ancient
agricultural instruments: on the edge of a near-by field the
water-buffalo grazed, her black head bent to the scanty pasture
available. A discarded fishing-net hung along some stunted bushes on the
eastern side of the buildings.

"But how," she asked of the youngest Yang daughter, "do your family
continue to live? For here I do not see a sufficiency of either food or
implements to support so many mouths."

"We live on the fish which my honourable father catches from the river,"
replied the child. "And, now that my father has not returned, we shall
starve except for such rice as we have stored and such money as your
mistress pays us."

"That is an evil state of affairs," observed Pai Mei, her little head
on one side, for she had never sampled quite such abject poverty as
this. "You say that your father has not returned? Did not your brothers
find him last night, then?"

"No. They found his boat, with his nets in, caught in a backwater, two
_li_ downstream. But of my father there was no sign. Tell me, from what
direction did you and your mistress come last night?"

"I was sitting on the river bank as dusk was falling," said Pai Mei, as
she had been instructed. "The woman came up to me and asked me if I
would carry her black box, and I agreed, for I was hungry and I had no
money. That is all I know."

"It is strange that she should have been on the bank," objected the
younger child. "For no man walks by the river, such as do not know the
country, or those who have to cultivate it, since the road runs far
away, by those trees yonder." She pointed to the horizon. "And you, too,
why were you on the river bank?"

"Because I had walked there," Pai Mei replied. "Come; we must go in, for
there are, doubtless, duties which my mistress has invented for me" She
turned and re-entered the house.

By and by the old woman came into the room where Tung Nan Tsz sat on her
black box.

"You were on the river bank last night," she said. "My honourable
husband was also on the river bank, and he has not returned, as you
know. Did you not see him?"

Tung Nan Tsz assumed a magnificent disregard. "Last night? I do not
remember seeing any man last night," she said. "And I am becoming
hungry. When will the morning rice be cooked?"

"There is no rice here until you tell me all you know," said the old
woman. "Where did you see Yang Foo on the river bank, and what was he
doing when you saw him?"

"I tell you, I do not remember seeing any man--only this small girl,
whom I engaged as my servant. And if you do not soon produce the morning
rice, I shall be compelled to take myself, my servant, and my payment
elsewhere, to a house where more attention is paid to the requirements
of guests who are prepared to pay for them."

The old woman went out grumbling, and by and by her voice called Pai Mei
to come and fetch the two rice-bowls for the morning meal.

No more was said, and the day passed without any happening until again
dusk rubbed out the clear lines of the paddy-fields and the lamp was
lit. Pai Mei felt an absurd sense of impending danger, she knew not why.
The two sons moved sullenly about the house on duties which did not
exist, and the girls crouched over the brazier.

"We shall move on to-morrow," said Tung Nan Tsz. "I find that the food
here is not as good as life in a city has led me to expect."

"In the city? You live in the city of Kwei Sek? Then you will know of
Ming So, who..."

"Silence, talkative one! Do you wish all the world to know?"

But the world had a very good idea now, and Pai Mei's treble question
had spurred others to action. The two sons appeared in the doorway: the
old woman Yang stood behind them.

"What is in that black box?" one of the sons demanded, advancing into
the room.

"And, in reply, what is that to do with you?" demanded Tung Nan Tsz. But
the family of Yang took no notice of this: they suspected her, and they
were determined to settle for themselves the problem of the contents of
the box and the business, if any, which had brought this masterful woman
to their house at the moment when, by an incredible coincidence, their
father had disappeared into the thin air of the river banks.

Pai Mei sat in a corner.

"Don't you run away!" commanded the old woman.

"And why should I desire to run away?" asked Pai Mei in return. "I have
not yet received my pay from my mistress, and therefore to run away is
the last thing in my mind."

Nevertheless two of the Yang girls were detailed to look after Pai Mei
while the rest of the family pursued their investigations...



CHAPTER XXX DOVES OF EXPERIENCE


TUNG LAI LUK stretched out his arms lazily on each side of the wicker
chair in which he lay at length, and yawned prodigiously.

"Praise be to the eternal gods," he said, "that now we have, for a brief
enough space, to endure none of our late trials--the energy of Po Feng
Hsi, the epigrams of Kung Hiao Ling, the shrill piping of the boy, my
nephew Ming So, nor the moonlike face of his little friend Yang Fei.
Quite apart from my regrettable wife's efforts to rid herself of me." He
yawned again, for it was pleasantly hot here in the garden of Lien Wo's
house near Nam Pa. Then he suddenly remembered this Lien Wo in his
catalogue. "Or, for that matter, the spurious but worldly wisdom of your
excellent father," he concluded.

Lien Fa, with a swift stroke of her fan, ended the scavenging career of
a fly in the neighbourhood of Tung Lai Luk.

"That is all very true," she agreed. "Here in the silent garden one may
assemble unhurried thoughts."

He looked round, surprised, "Are you, also, an epigrammatist?" he
demanded.

The girl nodded her head, as the Chinese do when they wish to express
denial. "No," she answered.

"I do not aspire to be literary. No. I only know that life is pleasant
here, with you in the chair before me and no duties nor distractions to
torment me. I could spend many hours like this, defending you from the
assaults of flies. Further, I could spend these hours with pleasure."

He laughed. "Because I am old and fat, you are pleased to be facetious.
Really, you desire to be off, back to the places where life is gay and
brightly coloured, where young impulse and its gratification are not
separated by the abyss of middle-aged inertia."

"You wrong me as much as you wrong yourself," she replied. "I have had
enough of the delights of youth, as you call them. Some pastimes are
over-rated, and that is one of them. No: I desire now the comparative
peach such as that which we are now enjoying--if I may venture to say
so--are enjoying together."

He turned to look at her. Then, apparently satisfied, he said: "You may
venture to say so, for there is in your words more than a grain of
truth. I, too, have lately been thinking how delightful it would be to
put behind us this medley of intrigue and duty, and to begin again in
some other place to taste what life has so far denied us."

"But," she contended, moving the fan slowly, "what has life denied us?
You have money, property, and a wife. What more may a man desire?"

"A man may desire much more than money, property, and a wife, Ah Fa."
And, as he addressed her thus informally, she smiled behind the moving
fan. "We may desire sons, for instance. My wife has, unfortunately, been
unable to supply them. Or even daughters. And then a man needs a wife in
something more than name only. My excellent if lawless wife serves but
as a peg whereon to hang the personal adornments which my money serves
to purchase. No--it is not enough."

The girl made no reply. She knew that, before long, he would continue.
And in this she was right, for Tung Lai Luk turned half round in his
chair and gazed at her thoughtfully.

"Do you remember," he asked, "the day when I purchased you from your
estimable father, during one of those periods of resting from banditry
when he resided here? You were younger then--much younger. So also was
I."

"You are no older now than a man should be who has attained his prime,"
she said, and waited.

"There was the usual moon that night--the moon which younger men than
I do not fully value. I remember the journey at night (for we took a
risk, did we not?) and the strange shadows in the banks of the river.
There were shadows, too, where the moon cast them, the shadows of your
breasts on your soft skin, the shadows..."

Lien Fa let him be lyrical. She also remembered that journey, but her
memory was better than the memory of Tung Lai Luk, for she recalled that
it had poured with rain on that particular night, and the moon had not
appeared once. Yet she said nothing of this, counting his imagination to
his credit where the memory itself was very much on the other side of
the ledger.

"I remember," said Lien Fa, letting the tip of her little finger caress
the back of his neck, "as if it were yesterday."

"I intended to move south," said Tung Lai Luk. "To the British Colony of
Hong Kong. Such money as I have been able to save without my wife's
knowledge is already banked there."

Still the girl at the head of his chair sat silent. She was fanning him
now.

"I cannot go to Hong Kong alone," said Tung Lai Luk.

"It would be unwise for you to do so," she answered. "For if you went
alone, who would look after your clothes? I will go and pack your small
luggage, as well as my own. We could hire a boat and go down the river
at night, as we did once before, long ago..."

She did not tell him that her luggage had actually been packed for the
last twelve hours, for men do not like discovering that their proposals
are expected.



CHAPTER XXXI YOU AGAIN?


KUNG HIAO LING led the party from the river bank. Beside him, Yang Fei
pointed out the path along the raised banks between the paddy-fields
towards the house where a light twinkled ahead of them.

"To return home is delightful, is it not?" the descendant of Confucius
smiled at her. "Even to one who has been promised a post in the
detective force of the city of Kwei Sek? It is a pity that Tung Lai Luk
and the girl Lien Fa elected to stay behind. They would have enjoyed
seeing this family reunion."

"To return home," answered Yang Fei, "is a privilege granted only to
those who have left home. It has been, as you have already told me, the
subject of innumerable poems and the inspiration of countless noble
deeds. And yet--I do not know whether my father will welcome me as I
should wish to be welcomed. Have a care, sir, at the corner of this
field, for there used to be a muddy place... I hope that my father
will welcome me."

Ming So, slightly in the rear, was remembering the very similar paths
between paddy-fields in his own village, and he felt just a little
jealous of Yang Fei as he walked with the ex-bandit Lien Wo towards the
lighted house ahead of them.

The party reached the door at last, and Kung Hiao Ling knocked sharply.
Instantly all noises in the house were stilled, and after an interval a
woman's voice called: "There is no hospitality in this house for
travellers who come in the dusk."

Then Yang Fei cried: "Mother! Open the door to my friends."

"What girl is calling me 'Mother'?" grumbled the voice. "I have but one
more daughter besides those who are with me here, and she is no longer
my daughter, for she was sold one moon ago to a merchant from the city.
So depart and leave us in peace."

"This is indeed your daughter," called Yang Fei. "And with me are Kung
Hiao Ling, the literary man, and Lien Wo, and a small boy, Ming So. We
come to greet you."

"Not so much of the small boy," muttered Ming So, as those within seemed
still to hesitate. "You at any rate ought to remember, Yang Fei, that I
am not so small as your speech would make out. But your mother is a long
time in opening the door."

He raised his voice and shouted.

"Ho, within there! Open the door, for a shut door is shut only on such
as should be concealed."

From within they heard a shrill cry.

"Ah, Ming So! Come quickly, for these people have tied me up, and as for
my mistress, whose name is Pak, they are..." Her voice subsided as a
hand was held over the mouth of Pai Mei.

"It is Ah Mei, my sweetheart!" cried Ming. "Let us break down the door."

Lien Wo seized a large stone lying by the door and hurled it at the
lock. This splintered, and the door swung open.

"I have no use for words, where deeds will suffice," said Lien Wo, as he
entered complacently.

The family of Yang was drawn up at the other side of the room. Kung Hiao
Ling put the ex-bandit behind him with a sweep of his arm.

"For this intrusion I must beg pardon," he said, and at the cultured,
level tone of his voice the old woman Yang cried: "Ai-ah, it is a man
who speaks poetry instead of words!" But he continued: "Our precipitate
action in forcing an entrance here is explained, thought not excused, by
the cry of our young friend here"--he indicated Ming So--"when he
heard the voice of the small girl with whom, I observe, he is now
engaged. The real purpose of our visit was to bring back to you--if
you want her--the girl Yang Fei, who was sold a while ago to a certain
Tung Lai Luk, of the city of Kwei Sek. I may observe that your maternal
delight at her return need not be tempered by the fear of having another
mouth to feed, for she has obtained lucrative employment in the city."

Yang Fei had gone towards her mother. There was no demonstration about
it, before all these strangers, for Yang Fei had passed the
light-hearted age of Ming So and the little girl Pai Mei, now sitting
side by side like a pair of love-birds, backs to the wall. And Yang
Fei's mother, apart from her own lifelong habit of self-control, had
other matters than rejoicing on her mind.

"I am glad to see my daughter, and more than glad to hear that she has a
post which will support her and leave some money over for her family.
For since the death of my husband I fear that our life here is very far
from secure."

"I offer my own sorrow," replied Kung Hiao Ling, "for your unfortunate
loss. It is perhaps presumptuous to enquire how events turned out in
this way."

The old woman looked at her sons, then back at Kung Hiao Ling.

"I think that we should do best to tell this scholarly man the truth,"
she said. "After all, we have done no wrong greater than she did to us,
when she killed my husband."

Lien Wo strode forward. He disliked words when actions would serve.
"There is mystery here," he said, "and mystery is an unsatisfactory
bedfellow." His hand moved to the latch of the bedroom door. "I propose
to enter this door," he said, "because, all the time that my honourable
friend Kung has been speaking I have been watching the stream of blood
which has been trickling under it." He opened the door and went in.

The old woman wrung her hands. "She had a weapon--a revolver--and we
intended to kill her, saying that it was in defence of our own lives.
But, before we could do so, she had shot herself. Ah, if I could have
got my hands to her!"

Then Lien Wo came out of the bedroom, bearing a black, shiny box, which
he opened on the floor in the middle of the room. "Bearer bonds,
bank-notes, and jewellery," he said. "A small fortune."

Kung Hiao Ling interposed. "The bonds," he said, "belonged to Loo Heng,
the Minister of Public Works of Kwei Sek, lately drowned owing to the
agency of this woman, with whom he had intended to go to Hong Kong,
where, in the British courts, Chinese justice does not extend. The notes
and the jewellery are doubtless the property of the dead woman's
husband, Tung Lai Luk, who will probably provide for the future of the
family of Yang, as he is bound to do by our law, being responsible for
the misdeeds of his wife. We shall see to that. For the rest..."

There was suddenly a thunderous knocking on the door of the building,
which has swung to. Now it opened, to admit Po Feng Hsi, Chief of Police
of Kwei Sek, and a posse of Chinese police.

"At last!" he cried as he entered. "Why! You here, Kung? You are always
anticipating me. Where is the woman Tung Nan Tsz, whom we seek?"

Lien Wo, with a bow, indicated the bedroom and closed the black box with
a click, handing it to Kung Hiao Ling. "You had better take charge," he
said. "We all know the haphazard methods of the police, and I, for one,
would rather trust a literary man."

"Some of that money belongs to me," piped up Pai Mei. "The evil woman
has not paid me for my services."

Po Feng Hsi returned from the inner room. "We must hold an enquiry, here
and now," he said.

Kung yawned ostentatiously, and Ming So slipped out into the darkness
with Pai Mei. He had several things to tell her.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Ming So, who had gone into the house to see how the enquiry was
proceeding, returned to find Yang Fei and Pai Mei rolling about on the
ground in the dark. From sundry gasps and grunts he deducted that they
were neither seeking some lost object nor suffering from an internal and
painful complaint, but simply fighting.

He watched them, so far as the almost non-existent light permitted, and
then interposed: "It is unfitting thus for girls to emulate the stronger
sex! The place of women, my uncle has often told me, is in bed. If women
fought thus in bed..." He left unfinished the picture which his words
conjured up. The two had ceased fighting now.

"She is a cat, the daughter of a cat, and a stealer of other girls'
men!" cried Pai Mei.

Yang Fei retorted: "I would rather be a cat than a monkey. And as for
men--I desire nothing more of men. I have known them under various
circumstances..."

Ming So laughed. "In the matter of personal histories I beg of you not
to be detailed," he said. "If circumstances threw a boy and a girl
together, should the boy or the girl be blamed? And as for you, Pai Mei,
I can see, even in this darkness, that you have torn those black
trousers which I remember your father buying for you. I think that the
needle is more your weapon than the tongue--or finger-nails."

Yang Fei made the motion of spitting.

"Men are useless," she cried. "I want no more of them. Henceforth, in
the detective service of Kwei Sek, I hope to expose and punish some of
their baser actions. Not that you, Ming So, ever did anything which I
might regret. But that was entirely because you could not--for no
nobler reason."

"Cat!" cried Pai Mei, returning to the assault.

Ming So shrugged his shoulders and went back indoors again to listen to
his friend Kung Hiao Ling. If girls must fight, there was no need for
men to witness the disgusting spectacle, he reflected.

"May I," asked Kung, as the boy entered, "constitute myself what I
imagine you would call counsel for the family of Yang?" He moved to the
table where the Chief of Police was taking notes.

The Chief of Police sighed. "Is it not enough to have had your forestall
me in arriving here?" he demanded. "Would it be too much to ask of you
to explain by what process of reasoning you managed to locate the
missing woman Tung Nan Tsz? For I, by a series of complicated
calculation, assisted by my staff, succeeded in ascertaining by
mathematics the precise whereabouts of the place where she must be, only
to find you here before us."

Kung smiled. "The boy Ming So will tell you, if you ask him, that I
suggested this journey in order to restore the girl Yang Fei to the
family from which she had been illegally taken away. I had been reading
the poems of Li Po, you see, and came on the passage:

"_The nightjar wails its absent mate,
And Youth grows old amongst the hills._

"Clearly, my duty was to see about the return of Yang Fei to her family."

Po Feng Hsi shook his head. "You are never willing to explain to me," he
said. "Ah, well, keep to yourself the secret of your methods. As to your
desire to act as counsel for the family, I have had sufficient
acquaintance with the methods which I have mentioned, and with your
literary abilities, to know by now that I shall be wise to agree. I
suppose that entails a speech."

"It does," Kung began. "It appears to me, from what we already knew and
from what you have discovered, that this woman, Tung Nan Tsz, pursued a
course of action which we can enumerate thus." He ticked off the points
on his fingers. "She put the girl Yang in a coffin and put the coffin
aboard the motor-boat which her man had already stolen. Your motor-boat,
Po!" He smiled, and the other shifted uneasily in his seat. "The next
action of this motor-boat was to take aboard a box containing papers--this
box. Presumably the box and its contents were the property of Loo
Heng, the Minister of Public Works, who has since been found drowned in
the estuary of Kwei Sek River. You agree?"

"Yes and no. But pray proceed."

Kung prepared to tick of another finger. "The woman, her two men, and
the money in this box proceeded upstream, past your sleeping guards in
the police station at Nam Pa..."

"That is an unjustifiable statement," the Chief of Police interjected.
"The officials of the police station had no reason and no right to stop
the motor-boat."

"Perhaps not, O paragons of efficiency. Yet he would be a bold man who
asserted that your policemen were not asleep. In any case, the point is
immaterial. The motor-boat reaches the bank near the house of the
hospitable Lien Wo, at the time appointed when this Lien Wo originally,
a moon past, removed Tung Lai Luk from his boat on his passage
downstream with the boy Ming So, his nephew."

"You are producing a very satisfactory analysis of my notes," said Po
Feng Hsi, "but I do not see wherein this is a speech for the family of
Yang."

"No?" Kung's voice was full of laughter. "Then I will proceed. The woman
and her two men escape from us--a regrettable piece of work, that--and
vanish in the motor-boat. The next scene is on the river bank near
this house, where the small girl, Pai Mei, sits weeping because the
money which she took from her mistress has been stolen, and she sees no
means of reaching the city of Kwei Sek, where the boy, Ming So, seems to
exercise a peculiar fascination for her.

"It is sad to picture the child, homeless, moneyless, foodless, sitting
thus on the river bank, sobbing her heart out. I think that a poem might
be written about it, entitled 'The Nightjar in the River Reeds.' You
would not imagine, to look at her now, that she could be the subject for
such a poem. But to return..."

"Good!" interjected the Chief of Police.

Kung took no notice of him. "To return to our problem. She sees,
down-river, a motor-boat. She sees the death of Yang Foo, the murder of
the two men, and the sinking of the motor-boat. Yet consider the
presence of mind of this child! She sits there, still sobbing, and gives
no clues to the wicked woman Tung Nan Tsz that she has seen what she has
seen. She tells neither Tung Nan Tsz nor the Yang family. What wisdom!
For had she told, she would not be here now, in all probability, playing
at love-birds with Ming So."

"Love-birds are wiser than more lonely birds," interjected Ming So
suddenly, for he was affronted. "Besides, they make little noise."

"Thus all came to its appointed end," went on Kung. "The wicked woman
plans to disappear. She did not even tell the little girl her real name,
but gave the name of Mistress Pak. Does not 'Pak' mean 'white', which is
both the symbol for purity and for death--a most suitable colour for
her to choose?"

"All which you say has the semblance of reality," answered the Chief of
Police. "Still..."

"But"--and Kung Hiao Ling here assumed an air of innocence--"there is
one flaw in all this. The dead woman has been identified by Yang Fei, in
whose interest it was to identify her as Tung Nan Tsz in order to excuse
the woman's otherwise inexplicable death, here in her mother's house.
But, under Chinese law, a body must be identified by a disinterested
party. She was not disinterested--the very opposite. You yourself, Po
Feng Hsi, would not be prepared to identify the somewhat untidy corpse
in the next room as the Tung Nan Tsz who sat in your office during the
previous enquiry into the death of Loo Heng. Consider--one woman amongst
all the many whom you meet. No--I thought you would not identify her on
oath. I only make the point as an academic one, but I feel that further
identification by someone else, possibly by the woman's husband or those
who knew her, is desirable. Who knows that this body is not just some
common bandit, who desired to rob the Yang family and adopted this way
of gaining entrance? It would be an amazing coincidence, but it needs
proof."

"You are, I think," countered Po Feng Hsi, "making much of little. But
since our idea of justice is what it is, and since, as you point out,
identification must be carried out by a disinterested party, I fear that
we must take the woman's body downstream with us, so that her husband or
some other may say whether this is the body of Tung Nan Tsz or of some
other bandit woman who happened to be here on our arrival."

Kung bowed. "That was what I intended to convey to you," he said. "I do
not think that I shall accompany you, since I have other business to
arrange. What is your intention with regard to the family of Yang?"

The Chief of Police explained: "I shall leave them here, with a guard. I
shall do so for two reasons, which I trust you will recognise as
valid--first, that I cannot be bothered taking all these women with me;
and, second, that someone must be left to do the necessary work on the
farm. If one is left, why not all? For a guard would be necessary in any
case."

"Your reasons seem as good as your actions," said Kung Hiao Ling, having
got what he wanted.



CHAPTER XXXII SECOND ATTEMPT


TUNG LAI LUK leaned back in his chair on the passenger deck of the S.S.
_Mo Kam Fai_. Beside him sat Lien Fa, sewing busily.

"The day is finer than your industry deserves," he said complacently,
"for such occupations as sewing are best fitted for a day whereon a
looker out of a window sees rain, pouring rain, drawing slanting lines
down the window, whilst the wind bends to their roots the bamboos which
his garden should possess. But now the sun shines. It is no time for
sewing."

Lien Fa did not raise her eyes from her work. "If we women chose only
wet days for our needlework," she observed, "you men would complain of
us as butterflies."

He groaned aloud. "Ah Fa, you remind me painfully sometimes of my other
wife, which is unwise of you. She is by now, I trust, expiating her
crimes as a result of the uncanny penetration of Po Feng Hsi, the Chief
of Police. I remember that she used to make just the same sort of remark
about men. Before she took to men as a hobby, that is."

Lien Fa poised her needle. "She was a very evil woman," she said,
without a blush. "But it was her wickedness which sent you to me, so
that I should be thankful for that wickedness."

"I am not asking"--and the voice of Tung Lai Luk was the voice of one
who has unlocked the door to laughter--"I am not asking what peculiar
sins of hers were known to you. I have had enough of questioning of
motives and comparison of characters. Suffice it that I have a
sufficiency of money in the bank in Hong Kong to save me from the
necessity of working, so that I shall be able to devote enough time to
you, Ah Fa, to keep you occupied."

She made a _moue_. "Virtue begets virtue," she said, "and living with
you should be enough for any woman. No doubt you will not let me
languish of boredom. Husbands who allow their wives to languish thus
have only themselves to thank. But, in any case, she was a very evil
woman. I do not desire to speak further of her. Unless"--she added--"you
insist on it. Then I can but be dutiful."

He rose to his feet and balanced himself as the boat rolled.

"No," he said, "I do not so desire. For the sun shines, and the waves
reflect the light of the sun, and I can stand thus and stretch my limbs
in the knowledge that I am no longer a business man."

"I do not know that you ought to give up business altogether," she said
innocently. "But tell me, are the shops pleasant in Hong Kong? I have
heard much talk of them. My late mistress used to talk about the Hong
Kong shops to Loo Heng, whom she drowned, and to Loo Ching, whom she
killed another way. I must confess that shops have always had a peculiar
attraction for me."

But Tung Lai Luk was not listening to her. "To be free!" he cried to the
wind. "To have no further care for money, for an erring wife with
murderous leanings, for a nephew whose one thought is of his belly. Oh,
that boy!"

"He was very young," replied Lien Fa, remembering. "Like a little
skinned rabbit in the electric light, I remember. It used to amuse Loo
Ching very much. Ah, well, such things are not good to think about too
deeply."

"I am sorry about your father," said Tung, sitting down again. "He has
gained nothing from his deals, either with my wife or with my unworthy
self."

"On the contrary," the girl returned demurely, "he has gained two
things."

"What may they be?" enquired her lord and master.

"He has gained a thousand dollars, in spite of the honourable Kung's
discovery that the notes were forgeries. Of course, I do not know whence
your late wife obtained them, but I do know that my father, when he had
recovered from his first rage, examined them carefully and decide that
what was good enough to deceive him was good enough to deceive others.
So that is not so bad. Also, since I often used to borrow money from him
with no intention of repaying it, he has lost a certain amount of
avoidable expense."

"Mm! Yes," Tung Lai Luk agreed somewhat dubiously. "I shall sleep now.
You can go on with your sewing."

"I do hope," thought Lien Fa, as she stitched, "that he will not prove
either too loving or too keen-sighted. Both failings are apt to be
awkward." She paused for a moment in her sewing, then went on again. The
second mate, a rather handsome northerner, had passed her on his way to
the chart-room.

When she looked up an instant later, the second mate was looking back.



CHAPTER XXXIII TALE OF A HAT


KUNG HIAO LING had chartered, amidst great excitement, the only two
carrying-chairs in Ch'ang Sui. That thus devehicled village had now been
left far behind, and the two chairs bounced steadily along the road to
Ha Foo. Kung himself sat placidly smoking in one chair, pondering on
some abstruse and literary matter. From the second chair came at
intervals small squeals and gurgles, so that the bearers, sweating as
they were, muttered remarks about love-birds.

"It is more kind of the gods than we deserve," sighed Pai Mei in her
ecstasy.

"What is this talk of gods?" came Ming So's reply, as he snuggled his
arm protectingly round her. "Praise rather the acumen, the penetration,
the clearsightedness, of men such as Kung Hiao Ling, who sits smoking in
the other chair, or of myself, who have--the two of us--brought
justice where crime was before, have turned a tragedy into a comedy. I
will not say farce."

"What is justice?" the little girl asked, not because she wanted to
know, but because Ming So was bound to talk, in any event, and it would
be as well if she gave him a subject.

"Justice? Why, O uneducated one, justice is what makes possible the
business of the world."

"I thought that money made possible the business of the world," said Pai
Mei.

"Oh!" was all that she could manage, for just at that moment he squeezed
her again...

"Fools and swallows twitter," grunted Kung Hiao Ling from the other
chair.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Twenty _li_, like twenty of anything else, come to an end. The bearers
threaded their way along the rough road between the paddy-fields, past
the cottage of the leather-worker, over the humped bridge, out at the
far side of the village, and finally set their burdens down a stone's
throw short of Ming Nai's cottage.

"To approach on foot is more considerate than to drown with the creak of
shafts the faint sighing of what wind there is, as it moves, restless,
round the devil-corners of your mother's house," said Kung. "Therefore
the coolies will follow, with our insignificant baggage, some little way
in the rear. You, Ming So, will walk slightly behind me, on my left.
Behind you this female twitterer will walk, as becomes the woman she is
not yet. Advance!"

Ming Nai opened the door of the cottage. Her quick eyes took in the
unknown Kung, the remembered Ming So, the regrettable Pai Mei. But she
stood before the man, remaining with eyes downcast, waiting his words.

"Once, at the Eastern Gate, a girl stood watching the horsemen file past
to the city," he began, in words chosen like tiles for a mosaic.

Ming Nai raised her eyes diffidently, for even cynics must know that a
literary man is more than other men.

"A girl so stood," she replied, "and the dust rose from the horses'
hoofs as the horsemen passed."

"Of these horsemen one, as his mount proved restless, dropped his cap."
Kung spoke still in the same chosen words. "The girl picked up this cap
and, gracefully as willow in spring breeze, came forward and returned it
to the rider."

"Their hands almost touched," she said. "But..."

"But?"

"But the horsemen rode on." She lowered her eyes again.

"Horsemen return in chairs," said Kung Hiao Ling. "May we enter your
house?"

She bowed and moved backwards into the cottage. The philosopher also
bowed. Then he returned to the children.

"Take this money," he said, "and proceed in the chairs to the village
food-shop. Once there, order from the surprised tradesmen sufficient for
a comfortable meal for us four, and also a modicum for the coolies who
have so uncomplainingly transported us. So--go!" He turned again and
entered after Ming Nai.

"There is much to say," he observed, "before the return of the two
children. It would therefore be as well to start now. But, before other
words are spoken, may I ask you to name the amount which the girl took
from your secret store, so that I may replace it before her return? I
wish to see whether that sprightly young mind reacts to surprise. No--do
not question or object. Tell me the amount."

Ming Nai did so, and Kung Hiao Ling, counting out notes for the missing
money, placed them in the drawer which Ming Nai showed to him. "Now we
can talk," he said. "Ceremony is all very well in its place, but its
place is not here. Let us be seated, that I may tell you all that has
happened, and the changed circumstances which have arisen since a
horseman dropped his cap and a girl picked it up and returned it to
him."

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

It was definitely amusing, the boy Ming So reflected, to sit eating
peanuts and watch the ball of intelligence tossed backwards and forwards
by his mother and Kung Hiao Ling, as they remembered epigrams and
aphorisms from the classics to cover every subject on which they
conversed. And yet he felt, too, that the subjects in question were
somehow restricted to one subject, and that a subject on which he and
Pai Mei had not in the past been backward to chatter.

"But," his mother would say, "the fox that has once been trapped fears
the trap, the wounded bird avoids the neighbourhood of archers."

At this Kung would smile. "The fox is incapable, being an animal of
limited intelligence, of distinguishing between the former trap and the
present estimable offer of a fox-burrow. The bird, wounded in the past
by an unworthy archer, is apt to regard even an unarmed man as
dangerous. The argument is prone to follow the emotions rather than the
reason, if those emotions have been aroused. Not that emotion, in
itself, is a bad thing..."

"For a woman," Ming Nai retorted, "emotion and instinct are safeguards
against the cold reason of men. Their support of a case makes it
invulnerable, their opposition takes from beneath it the ladder of
possibility."

"Yet reflect," Kung said, "on those very emotions to which you thus
appeal. Do you not read them in the light of a fear that is dead and
done with? Look them squarely in the face. Admit that you are not
unattracted, really, by my unconventional offer. Abandon the prejudice
born of the sorrow of the past years, and admit that you are not as
hostile to the idea as you would make out. After all, our childish
memories should not be wholly disregarded, and the girl who once picked
up a horseman's cap should not, now, be the woman who tramples on that
cap."

Ming Nai smiled. "Oh, yes, you can twist words as no one else can. I
grant you that. You can paint a pigsty into a palace. You can make the
archer's arrow appear the harmless wand of the water-diviner. Oh, yes,
it is easy to talk."

Kung raised his hands to his ears. "What would you?" he demanded. "The
Master says: _If language is lucid, that is enough,_ and I cannot accept
blame for my ability to put my thoughts into words. For consider that,
if men were unable to express their ideas, they would be no better than
the beasts."

"To take a case which is too extreme convinces not even yourself," she
replied. "But, at any rate, should not you consider the tradition which
our nation has built up round the sayings of your great ancestor,
Confucius? You know that no follower of his teaching approves of a widow
exchanging her own roof-tree for another."

"You do not believe in tradition," he returned.

"No, but you do. It would not look well if the Master's descendant set
at naught the Master's teaching."

"I will answer that in two different ways," said Kung. "The first way is
by pointing out that my ancestor himself never put forward any such
prohibition as you have mentioned. I should therefore be doing well in
showing that I, at least, do not subscribe to the later accretions which
now disfigure his theories of life. The second way of answering you is
to say that, even if such behaviour were frowned on by tradition, man is
his own master, and that it would be folly to allow a code to become a
ritual, to turn a recipe for cooking into the law of a nation. You cook
for pleasure and comfort: you govern a nation for the nation's
prosperity. Neither should interfere with a free man's right to his own
free will. Further, you need not change your roof-tree, as you said, for
I like this village as well as most, and I think that I might write
poems here..."

The little girl Pai Mei tugged at Ming So's sleeve.

"Come away," she said. "They waste words."



CHAPTER XXXIV IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE CRIMINAL CODE


PO FENG HSI laid down his brush and read through his report of the case
of Tung Nan Tsz as far as he had written it. Then, taking up the brush
again and damping it with precisely the correct amount of ink from the
slab, he proceeded.

"The boy of the woman could not be identified at Nam Pa, owning to the
departure of the husband, Tung Lai Luk, with the girl Lien Fa for an
unknown destination. On arrival at Kwei Sek the body was already showing
signs of a more than incipient decay, but identification was achieved
through four girls from the Government silk factory, who gladly came to
view the body, saying that they were gratified to see the end of their
former employer.

"The above mentioned departure of Tung Lai Luk and the girl Lien Fa had,
I suspect, been anticipated by the illustrious Kung Hiao Ling, who had,
however, made no attempt to stop the elopement. When questioned, Kung
will probably reply that Tung deserved better luck wit his second wife,
and that he is, seemingly, not buying unsampled goods.

"In order to conclude the case in accordance with the Criminal Code, it
was needful to arrange for the future of the family of Yang, who, owning
to the death of the aged fish-winner ('bread-winner' would be
incorrect), were now without visible means of obtaining rice.

"This difficulty will be overcome by the sale of the jewellery found in
the possession of the dead woman, and the investment of the proceeds in
Salt Loan. The bearer bonds found in her box have been handed over to
the family of the late Loo Heng, after due confirmation had been
obtained that these bonds were in the possession of Loo Heng when he
left his house and was later found, drowned, in the harbour.

"I have described this case in more detail than might have been
expected, because at every step the literary man, Kung Hiao Ling, has in
some way altered the sequence and the setting of facts by his habit of
acting on the strength of such things as poetry or the direction of the
wind. Had I not thus set down my own account, those hearing of it from
Kung or his friends might have suspected in the police of the province
an accession of that poetical and unpractical spirit which was the glory
of the T'ang Dynasty, but seems out of place in the agents of the law in
Republican China.

"He signs this who wrote it.

"PO FENG HSI."

The Chief of Police again laid down his brush with a profound sigh and
picked up the volume of the poems of Li Po which he had lately borrowed
from his friend Kung, while the latter was away from his rooms.

_Is it dew makes the jade threshold glisten--Just dew? Or do
thresholds weep, as they listen For you?_

He closed the book again. "That is great poetry," he observed to nobody
in particular. Then he struck the gong at his side. To the constable who
entered, he said: "Send to me the new girl detective, Yang Fei. I fancy
that, if she has a mind to, she may be able to enlighten me on one of
the poems of the great Li Po, a poem which I find a little obscure."

"She has gone out," replied the constable, smiling behind his hand, for
it was already rather a joke in the station about the Chief of Police
and his romantic attachment for his new detective. "The little girl who
had no name is sweeping out her room, and told me that at the time of
preparing for the evening meal she would be in the restaurant of the
'Seven Heavenly Dishes,' engaged on police business, doubtless, although
the little girl whom she brought from 'The Happy Heart' did not tell me
this."

"You talk too much," said Po Feng Hsi, reaching (with another sigh) for
his street coat.



CHAPTER XXXV HANGING WATERS


THE pool below the waterfall reflected the faint skyline of the fringing
trees on the far side. To-night there was no moon whatever, but the
stars hung only just out of reach in the low sky. Towards the fall
itself the mirrored images of the stars and of the skyline were lost in
the ripples--as the children looked farther, towards the remote,
shallower end, warm stars took their being, first in swaying streaks of
gold, then in curious, small ellipses, and finally in steadier, only
slightly swaying points.

The sibilant purr of the fall sounded continuously, like a background of
thoughts which cannot be denied entrance to the conscious mind.

"It is very dark," complained Pai Mei, as she stood there holding Ming
So's arm. "I can hardly see my feet."

"What need is there for a light?" he demanded. "We are older now, if
only a little, and now we know more of the world. At least, I do.
Therefore I rely less on bright lights, which only illuminate the
surface of things."

"It is not very cold," said her voice hopefully.

"No--it is not very cold. But what do you mean by that observation?
For surely you are not given overmuch to noticing the temperature or the
other ways in which Nature manifests itself? There lies behind your
remark some further remark, which you presumably have not courage to
utter."

She did not answer this directly. Instead she said: "If I stretched out
my hand, I could pick one of the stars, like a ripe golden plum." Then
she sighed. "And there would be one less star in the sky. The last time
that I came here, I went behind the hanging waters of the fall and there
were wonderful things there--an old man who was blind, with an otter
which brought him fish for food. He told me of my past and of my future,
but, because I was foolish and a little afraid, I had told him I was a
boy. So I saw, instead of my own, the past and future of Ming So."

_"Study of the supernatural is injurious indeed,"_ replied Ming So,
quoting Confucius. "And I think that you should have given some other
name than mine, because..."

But she took no heed of what he was saying. "He showed me the room in
the city of Kwei Sek, where that woman Yang Fei pillowed your head on
her knees. She is indeed a polecat, and the daughter of a polecat, for
neither of you had any clothes on."

"That was a lamentable occurrence, and none of my seeking," answered the
boy.

"He also showed me the future, round a camp fire on the river bank. That
has already happened, I suppose."

"It has," he replied.

"Then let us go and see him now."

"Very well," said Ming So. "We must be careful not to lose our clothes,
because it is very dark. I shall hang mine on this bush, here."

"And I on this," Pai Mei replied, doing so.

The water was, as one might expect, chilly for the first moment, but as
the two waded farther into the water the chill seemed to pass.

"How does he see in the cave?" Ming So asked.

"Foolish! Did I not say that he was blind? Should I have gone into the
cave, I, with no clothes at all, if he had not been blind? But there is
flint and steel and tinder for making a fire on which to cook fish which
the otter brings, so we could..."

"I am anxious to see this man. It seems to me that it would be
convenient thus to foreknow the future. Much money might be made thereby
in the city."

"It is pleasant to have money," said Pai Mei, as if it were a very small
matter. "This waterfall takes the breath away, but just behind it is a
shelf of rock, to which it is necessary to climb. Will you lift me up?
For last time I scratched my knee."

"Girls are awkward things," he answered. "For ever needing assistance
from man. But I will do as you say." He put his head through the veil of
water, and gasped: "Ai-ah! But I can see nothing whatever now."

Her voice beside him whispered: "Can you not put one leg up, as if you
were going to climb? Then I can step on it, like a ladder."

"There is a convenient rock here," he observed. "Thus. Now, hold my
shoulder. Give me your foot. There. Now climb." He reflected that there
was no real reason for her little toes to wriggle as he held her around
the hips, standing on his bent thigh. "Go on: climb up." He heard the
little wet squelch as her body reached the stone floor of the cave, and
promptly pushed the rest of her after it. "Now find the flint and steel,
for I cannot see at all."

After an interval he saw first one spark, then a shower. For an instant
her little, narrow face was outlined, then only the vision persisted.
Again she struck flint on steel.

"It is no use," she cried petulantly. "The tinder is damp. And there is
no one in the cave. Come: climb up."

But as the boy pulled himself out from the water behind him and lay on
the stone floor, the spark fell on a drier part of the tinder, and she
coaxed the tiny flame into life and lit one of the rush torches stuck in
a crack of the rock wall. The flickering, yellow glare made them both
blink.

"And, now that you have brought me here, what is to be done?" queried
Ming So. "I wonder where the old man has gone. Ai-ah! You are not nearly
as old as the girl Yang Fei! Is there another passage into this cave?"

She did not reply, but led the way, holding the torch above her head.
They passed along a tunnel, rising under their feet, a tunnel which
became narrower and lower, so that finally, stooping, they emerged round
the side of a vast boulder into the open air, under the same low, yellow
stars. But now the surrounding trees made them feel as if they were
viewing the sky from the bottom of a pit: the space was a small garden,
whose blooms showed only of a lighter grey in the yellow glare of the
torch.

"It is a garden!" cried Ming So, with surprise in his voice.

"When we are married, we shall live here," the girl asserted in the
manner of wives who plan. "But where can the old man be?"

"There never was an old man," he told her. "It was one of the spirits of
the hills, with whom your father, Pai Kwat, has dealings."

"That cannot be, for I saw him with my own eyes, and heard with my own
ears the story of your carryings-on with the abominable girl Yang Fei.
No: he was a real man. But he was very old, and I expect that he has
gone away to die. Old men do that."

"It is a sad thought," said Ming So, and he softly hummed the burial
song, chanted over the graves of common men.

_"Whose is the graveyard? Ghosts crowd within it, Wise with the unwise,
Death's King their master--Man's doom delays not."_

He ceased humming. "Ai-ah, it is a sad thought. But we are young, and it
is foolish to talk of death when you are young. Shall we go back now?"

"I suppose so," agreed the girl dreamily. "We could take some of these
flowers back with us into the cave, to hang on the walls. There are rugs
there already--the rugs on which the old man used to sit."

They returned through the rock passage, and as they sat down on the pile
of rugs the otter came and laid a fish at their feet, biting neatly at
the back of the head, so that the movement of the fish became tiny
tremors of the fins.

"He mistakes me for the old man of whom you were telling me," said Ming
So with a smile. "Light a fresh torch, for I have had enough of sitting
in the dark with a girl."

"Kung and your mother will marry," she said as she rose and went to the
store of torches. "What is this marriage?"

"It is very like sitting alone in the dark with a girl," chuckled Ming
So, as she returned to his side on the pile of rugs. He chuckled to
conceal the manner in which his teeth wanted to chatter, although he was
not cold, and also the fact that he was very much afraid, just as he had
been once before...



THE END




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