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Title: By Decree of the High Ones
Author: Robert Coutts Armour
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1600791h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  July 2016
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By Decree of the High Ones

by

Robert Coutts Armour
(Writing as Coutts Brisbane)


Published in The English Review, Aug 1930


The little tarts of apricots flavoured with garlic, the savoury duck with its mound of rice and well-peppered onions, the shark fin soup, and a double measure of well-heated wine had gone to their appointed place. With that feeling of peace towards all which only a well-bestowed inner man can confer, Dr. Hi Ho filled and lit his pipe, and puffed luxuriously.

He had had a very busy and profitable day, for his fame as a healer had gone far abroad; he had but to hang out the scroll which proclaimed his name and accomplishments in any market place in all the province of Ho Nan to collect a crowd of sufferers clamouring for relief. From his place by the window of the aptly named restaurant, Rotundity-of-Circumference-Bestowed, Dr. Hi looked down the narrow, dirty street, through Ping-Chow's eastern gate and along the rough road over which he must soon be jogging if he would reach Sen-Yang, the scene of his next day's activities, before darkness fell.

With a sigh, the worthy doctor drew forth a fat purse and settled the bill. He would fain have lingered in this earthly paradise, but business was business. Sen-Yang was a much larger town than Ping-Chow, and without doubt many and wealthy patients awaited his coming.

Suddenly a clatter of hooves rose above the clamour of the street vendors, and a man, well clad in garments of a superior quality, though soiled with the dust of travel, threw himself from a lean pony, and, after a word with a beggar, entered the restaurant.

"Here is one whose rice bowl has never been empty!" quoth the keeper of the house. "Eminent Turner-Away-of-Mortality, permit that I attend to his wants. But even as he turned, the newcomer, advancing with precipitation, inclined himself with due courtesy before the man of medicine.

"Have my eyes the sublime satisfaction of beholding the highly esteemed Dr. Hi Ho?" he inquired in a voice which he sought to make low and honeyed, though in truth it recalled the sound of ungreased cartwheels proceeding over cobbles.

"I am that lowly and unattractive person," replied Dr. Hi, with the modesty proper to politeness. "If you require my services, be brief, for I am about to take the road for Sen-Yang."

"That is well, for your never-sufficiently-to-be-praised skill is required in my house, which stands but a little way from that road. Know that an eminent mandarin named Wing Soo lies upon my bed in great pain; therefore hasten."

"I come!" said Dr. Hi, and rose. "My feet move towards his bed of pain with the alacrity of a swallow absenting itself from the presence of hawks. Nevertheless—." He paused and coughed delicately: "There are mandarins whose eminence of station is accompanied by an inexcusable reluctance to bestow a fitting fee when the agony of the body has been assuaged by the practised skill of a healer too innocent of the ways of the world to demand more than a fee of fifty taels in advance."

"Here are a hundred, and as many more will attend the success of your ministrations," replied the messenger, and, taking from an inner pocket a bag which gave forth musical chinkings, he bestowed it upon the doctor.

"I come!" cried Dr. Hi. "Let my horse be brought at once. Bring my pack, containing nothing but the rarest drugs, procured at an immense expense, and we will take the road."

A few minutes later the pair clattered forth out of Ping-Chow. At once Dr. Hi Ho sought information.

"Is the Heaven Aspiring Steed close to the bedside, think you?" he asked. "And are the yamen men of the estimable Wing Soo of an irascible temperament, likely to demand the return of a fee if, by the inscrutable decree of the High Ones, Wing Soo has already departed?"

"They are all men of pleasing countenance and polite demeanour, and will bow to the decrees of the Highly Exalted. But be not afraid! Though the neighing of the Steed has indeed been heard, his gold and vermilion hooves are not yet upon the floor of the chamber," replied the messenger consolingly.

With that he bestowed his whip lash impartially upon his beast and also upon the quarters of the benevolent doctor's plump and lethargic mount and so urging, kept him at a smart trot, which in a while brought them half way towards Sen-Yang, where the conductor veered aside up a track which wound into the hills.

The sun was setting, and, as its light declined, Dr. Hi Ho began to look about him with apprehension, for the hills had a bad name.

"Are we near your well-built and extensive habitation?" he asked sharply. "For I have heard that men of evil nature, without reverence for the law or fear of the consequences of highway robbery, have of late been prowling hereabouts. It would be a great misfortune if we should encounter any of the rascals."

"Be not afraid! If we should meet any, I will quickly deal with them in no uncertain manner," replied the guide, and, throwing aside the skirt of his coat, displayed a heavy sword, a broad knife and a pistol of the sort used by outer barbarians, which could be discharged six times without pause.

Dr. Hi Ho, heartened by the sight, once more hastened his horse's steps, and soon they turned up the side of a ravine towards a small house perched upon a rock, from which lights gleamed through the deepening dusk.

Several men appeared upon the verandah as the pair dismounted, and Dr. Hi Ho noted with qualms that they were persons of no refinement, lacking in breeding, since they carried naked weapons and flourished them about their heads in a truly barbarous fashion, so that Dr. Hi Ho was moved to reproof.

"Refrain!" he said sternly. "Doubtless you are thus provided with body-destroying instruments because of the brigands who infest these hills. Yet to display them thus in such undistant wavings beneath this person's nose is worthy rather of vile robbers deserving of the Long Death than the respectable servants of a highly placed and many-examination-passing mandarin!"

At this well-merited rebuke the servants withdrew themselves a little way and allowed their faces, already marred by excesses and the scars of wounds, to become distorted with unseemly mirth. The scandalized Dr. Hi Ho turned to his conductor.

"In the seventh book of the wise and learned Wo Fung's greatest work, Labyrinth of Etiquette, it is written: 'Laughter in the presence of a superior is like to an evil odour before the Table of Offerings.'"

"In the seven hundredth book of the Sages it is written: 'In the house of the tiger the wise cat refrains from scratching!'" retorted the fellow. "Revered uncle, know that you are come to the estimable mansion of the mighty brigand Ting Lung. In much pain, he awaits your help. Hasten, therefore, or a death of superior ingenuity, long protracted, shall be your portion!"

So saying, he propelled Dr. Hi Ho into a room where, upon a large and many-quilted bed, lay a huge and hideous man, whose fat body heaved and quivered to the violence of internal convulsions.

Immediately the fear and resentment which Dr. Hi had experienced at discovering the plight into which desire to aid the suffering had precipitated him was swallowed up by professional interest.

"In the yamen of the mighty mandarin Kai Lo, at Wai-Peng, I was called upon to minister to a young elephant which had swallowed a bundle of fish-hooks. He looked much the same as your interesting and, doubtless, benevolent Ting Lung, and his movements were of a similar diversity. Is it possible that the valiant and far-extending Ting Lung has inadvertently partaken of something equally of a not-sympathetic nature?"

"It is not known," replied the fellow evasively. "It was for that reason that this person—whose name is Lo Yip—came to Ping-Chow to secure your services. You are a healer. Heal!"

"I will do my best, yet if the Supreme Ones have decided that the hour has come for Ting Lung to become an ancestor—what then? Would this person also experience a discontinuation of existence?"

Lo Yip's countenance exhibited horror and surprise in equal measure.

"By no means, honoured one! In any event the not unremunerative position of doctor to our band is offered to you. Sword, gunshot, knife and spear wounds, also head batterings with clubs and stones, which are too often inflicted upon the brigand by travellers unwilling to bow to the decrees of Providence, will keep the skill of your hands from decreasing. For recreation you will question prisoners or persuade villagers to disclose the hiding-place of treasures which a base and soul-destroying avarice has induced them to conceal."

"I am not an executioner!" replied Dr. Hi Ho coldly. "My art is used to cure, not to torment."

"This person, having witnessed cures performed by the learned and eminent Hi Ho, is of the unalterable opinion that the difference is but one of words," replied Lo Yip drily. "Also, this person having hitherto, not without a measure of success, performed the necessary operations, will instruct you. Or, should an unwise obstinacy impel you to decline the honourable office, he himself will convince you that the task is not beyond the compass even of a not-transcendently-effulgent intellect."

"I accept the offer made with such abundant delicacy!" replied Dr. Hi Ho with haste. "And now let us consider the valiant and widely-disposed Ting Lung. Let a brazier of hot coals be brought."

So saying, Dr. Hi unrolled his chart of the human body, divided into a hundred spaces, each of which was numbered to correspond with a compartment of his medicine box. By ordinary he would have questioned the patient as to the position of his pains, and, having located the spots on his chart, would have administered drugs from the corresponding divisions of his medicine case. But since the valiant Ting Lung was beyond speech, he had resort to other and more subtle methods.

Arranging a set of cautery irons in the brazier, he took from his instrument case a mallet of ivory, weighted with lead and adorned with dragons of benevolent aspect.

"Note well the features of the valiant Ting Lung, honourable Lo Yip," quoth he, and smote the patient deftly in the midriff.

"They recall the progress of a devastating earthquake through a porcelain factory!" commented Lo Yip.

"Truly! Therefore a dragon is at work in this portion of his ample interior," murmured the doctor, and made note of the number of the affected area on his chart.

"Yet, since there is much of Ting Lung, we will try again," and once more he smote, with the most gratifying results, for the patient heaved tumultuously in all directions and emitted a grating cry resembling the call of the female tiger to her mate.

"So!" cried Dr. Hi, allowing a smile of satisfaction to adorn his not-unengaging countenance. "We have found the innermost lair of the dragon. Let us expel him!"

From the compartments of his medicine case, indicated by the number on his chart, he measured doses with a graduated spoon. These he mixed with water and honey of Chang Ho, and, filling a large syringe, introduced the mixture to the attention of the dragon.

Then, in order that the attention of the patient might be suitably distracted while conflict raged, he proceeded to apply his cautery irons to sundry of the outlying portions of his person.

At first the valiant Ting Lung responded with an alacrity which wreathed the smile of benevolence about the abundant mouth of the sympathetic Lo Yip, but presently these manifestations of a superior vitality ceased, and the brow of Dr. Hi Ho grew clouded. He turned to Lo Yip, laying the finger of caution upon the lips of discretion.

"Tell me, perspicacious one, which of your braves aspires to the position of chief of this band in the event, not too far removed, of the valiant Ting Lung becoming the object of a filial descendant's adoration?" he whispered.

"Truly, all of the six," replied Lo Yip. "Though assuredly a person of such penetration as the eminent and learned Hi Ho must perceive that the only one fitted for the honourable and distinguished position is this person. But do your capacious ears indeed hear the nicher of the Heaven Aspiring Steed?"

"Truly the stirrup approaches the foot of Ting Lung. The will of the Supreme Ones is about to be fulfilled—by the aid of a not-nourishing quantity of ground glass which the valiant Ting, in a moment of no vigilance, must have swallowed with his rice."

"The will of the Supreme Ones may not be disputed," murmured Lo Yip. "Will the mounting of the saddle be long delayed?"

"Before the light of day broadens upon the roof of this palatial abode, the ascent will have been accomplished."

"In the absence of the valiant Ting Lung's only son, Wei, now languishing in the yamen of the chief magistrate of Ho Nan with his heels higher than his head, this mean and undeserving person will assume the filial station and make the libations," said Lo. "Also, I will prepare a draught of wine for those low-born ones whose ambition exceeds their deserts. Tell me, eminent one, if among your medicines is any which, if administered by an unskilful hand, would cause the taker thereof to repair henceward with superior celerity?"

"There are indeed such, my son," replied Dr. Hi Ho, with a benevolent smile. "And that no unskilled hand may meddle with them, they are bestowed in those white bottles which you may see in one corner of my case."

"The coming of day and the departure of Ting Lung are yet removed by some hours," said Lo, with an air of solicitude. "You are wearied with well-doing. In an adjoining apartment, all unworthy of your employment, yet soft and sleep-bestowing, is my bed. Condescend, uncle, to take your rest upon it, while I watch here by the valiant one."

"My body, exhausted by a long day of conflict with afflicted ones, was indeed weary before I made the journey to this richly-endowed dwelling," murmured Dr. Hi Ho. "I go. Call me when the celestial hooves clatter by the bedside."

Though he was indeed wearied with well-doing, Dr. Hi Ho did not sleep, being afflicted with a not unreasonable doubt that he would again awake in the land of the living.

But a few minutes had passed when he was aware that the eminent Lo Yip had entered the room bearing his medicine case, which he laid softly by the wall, then retreated. Satisfying himself that Lo was out of earshot, having left the adjacent chamber, Dr. Hi skipped from the bed and inspected the white bottles in his case. As he had every reason to suspect, one of these had been nearly emptied. Dr. Hi smiled in the superior fashion of the tiger entering the sty of a well-upholstered porker, and lay down once more.

Time enough for the eating of a duck had elapsed when there came a sound from the window beside the head of the bed. One of the ill-conditioned ones, now wearing a look of refined politeness, came softly into the chamber, carrying a finger upon his lips.

"Eminent one, this humble person is the watchman and also the cook to this band," he said in a low voice. "In the hours of darkness when all creatures of a good habit should be asleep, a large fox, or it may be a small tiger, comes to my larder and does evilly. It may be that among all those medicines which wise doctors carry there is something that, if mixed with honey or the lard of a hog, would be swallowed by this animal and confer upon it the benefits of no-existence?"

"My son," replied Dr. Hi Ho benignly, "I have indeed such a substance, of such a marvellous potency that in the short space of half an hour even a large tiger of the mountains of Kirin, with claws two spans long, would be impelled to seek the upper air. Wait but a moment, and I will give it to you."

"As perchance the animal may be large, the dose should be large also?" suggested the cook-watchman.

"Here is enough to slay ten men and a boy child of abnormal strength," quoth Dr. Hi. "If it be a tiger, retain for me the bones and claws."

"It shall be so, uncle," murmured the brigand, and withdrew without ostentation, leaving Dr. Hi to smile with an even greater latitude.

Scarcely had he settled himself than another whisper arose by the window, and again the man of wisdom was importuned, this time to supply the wherewithal to deliver a favourite horse, stricken by a deadly wound, from the anguish of further existence.

"Give him this and the relief will be not long delayed," said Dr. Hi Ho, and, so, a little reassured by the benevolent intentions of this last seeker after aid, allowed himself to fall asleep.

The first light of dawn was filtering through his window when the good doctor was aroused by the sounds of voices upraised in moaning and lamentation at no very great distance.

Dr. Hi Ho arose and entered the chamber of Ting Lung. A glance sufficed to show that the noise did not proceed from that eminent and valiant one, for very plainly the heaven-aspiring steed had paid his visit, and Ting Lung was now an ancestor.

The sounds still continued, though with diminishing force. Pausing to investigate the couch of the departed chief, Dr. Hi Ho laid the finger of reflection upon the forehead of sapience, considered for a moment, then, taking a sharp sword which hung by the bedside of the newly-made ancestor, he stepped forth upon the balcony. Before the regard of his benignant and moonlike countenance lay the six brigands whom he had at first mistaken for honest, if ill-conditioned, servants and that other who had named himself Lo Yip, all with their bodies and limbs displayed after the manner of an octopus writhed upon a fisherman's harpoon.

Several had already passed to the Upper Beyond, but Lo Yip was able to turn his head and bestow upon the doctor a look charged with abundant malignity. Yet his voice, though weak, was of a persuasive and wheedling quality as he addressed Dr. Hi Ho.

"Learned and beneficent one!" he croaked. "It would seem that one of these dog-faced atrocities must have mingled with the wine with which we welcomed the coming of the Steed some substance of a not-nourishing nature. That was as it should be, for all of them are of an avaricious and low-souled character. But, by some infernal mischance, the substance has also been mingled with the wine which I had reserved for myself. I am consumed by devouring thirst, while the hidden side of my body is tormented by scorching pangs. Act quickly therefore. Give me relief, and my gratitude shall surpass that of the Emperor Tchuan Li, who bestowed upon the physician who cured him of a death-inducing dose of deleterious substance the revenues of the province of Kiang-Si. Celerity is indicated. Exercise it!"

"The fee promised is generous, yet it sometimes happens that, in a meritorious and urgent desire to avoid dissolution, the patient promises more than he can reasonably perform. Be explicit, therefore. Already I perceive more than one steed approaching with saddle ready to receive an aspiring passenger to the upper atmospheres."

"I know where the late Ting Lung kept the accumulated pickings of a long and highly remunerative career! All shall be yours. Cure me!" moaned Lo Yip.

Dr. Hi Ho regarded him with a benevolent smile, but slowly and emphatically shook his head.

"Far be it from me, an innocent and often cloudy-minded healer of bodies, to refuse the assistance of my art!" he murmured. "Yet the hour strikes when the most gifted must fold the hands of resignation and bid the patient consider the joys that inevitably await him in the superior ethereality. Consider, oh, Lo Yip, the pleasures that await—"

"But the treasures of Ting Lung are worth an incredible sum. Without my aid they will be of no avail to you!" howled Lo Yip.

The moonlike and beneficent countenance of Dr. Hi Ho became even more suffused with that glow which comes of interior benevolence.

"Eminent and aspiring one, know that this person, though of a lowly and slow-moving intellect, has yet sufficient perspicacity to perceive that the bed of the late amiable Ting Lung has a double bottom, well secured by a cunning lock. Also he has perceived a key chained upon the wrist of the departed. He opines that, by the exercise of his despicable mental powers, he may even discover the treasure of Ting Lung without your assistance."

Lo Yip's contorted face assumed an aspect of incredible ferocity. His mouth opened wide, doubtless to allow a stream of idle yet venomous abuse to issue forth. But before the words could issue he was seized by a violent convulsion which deprived him of the power of speech, and a few moments later had ascended the saddle of the invisible Purveyor of Paradise.

Dr. Hi Ho watched the passing with professional interest, then considered the situation.

"The magistrate of Sen Yang would doubtless bestow a fitting reward for the heads of eight notorious and greatly-desired brigands," he murmured. "Yet doubtless also he would be moved to inquire whence had gone the riches which they had accumulated by industrious application of their profession. Avarice is chief of the seven superior vices. I will eschew it."

With that inward feeling of well-being which the practice of renunciation alone can bestow, he turned to the bed of the departed Ting Lung. An hour later, riding an excellent horse, recently adorned by the brigand chief, and driving his own heavily laden steed before him, Dr. Hi Ho departed from that place.

"Inscrutable are the decrees of the High Ones!" he mused as he took the road for Sen Yang. "By the diligent practice of the healing art for ten years I have accumulated far less than has been bestowed upon me in a single night by the efforts of well-meaning, if uninstructed, practitioners. It is weary work riding the roads in weather too often inclement. Permanence of situation is abundantly indicated. The city of Sen Yang is large and has many wealthy inhabitants whose bodies need the continuous care of a well-instructed physician. A small house, a large servant, and a well-considered wife to bestow upon me the blessings of numerous son-offsprings are at last within the bounds of realizable possibility. Hasten, therefore, bearer of felicity."

And kicking his horse to a trot, Dr. Hi Ho rode smiling on his way.


THE END

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