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Title: At The Fortunate Frog
Author: Robert Coutts Armour
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Language: English
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At The Fortunate Frog

by

Robert Coutts Armour
(Writing as Coutts Brisbane)


Published in The English Review, December 1930


The last of the long line of patients had departed, writhing but relieved. Dr. Hi Ho sat himself down on the low couch that had served all morning as operating table, lit the pipe which his servant Sung presented to him with the cautery iron which had done yeoman service, and puffing a cloud of smoke, permitted himself to smile.

That morning at daybreak he had opened his clinic for the first time in his own house, after years spent as an itinerant practitioner proclaiming his merits in every market place of the great province of Ho Nan.

He had done well. Already he had thought of settling down in some large city, when a stroke of fortune had trebled his capital and he no longer hesitated.

He had purchased a small but well-situated house in the Street of The Evening Star, in Sen Yang, hired a hairy, two-humped camel and sent it forth through the crowded city ways, led by his faithful ex-barrowman, Sung, to announce his arrival.

There was no false modesty about the advertisement. Large placards hung on either side of the beast proclaimed in red letters:

"Dr. Hi Ho, Mighty Healer of bodies, is come to live among you, in the house of The Fortunate Frog, in Evening Star Street. Dr. Hi Ho, Healer of Mandarins, the Best Doctor in the World. All Diseases cured. Pain abolished. Dr. Hi Ho, who formerly sat in the market place, receives the sick at the sign of The Fortunate Frog, or heals the incurable in their own homes.

"Dr. Hi Ho, the Greatest Doctor in the World, is in Evening Star Street at the sign of The Fortunate Frog He cures Everything!"

And since Dr. Hi Ho was already widely known as a successful if somewhat drastic dealer with human infirmities, business had started with sunrise. He had reason to smile.

"We begin well, Sung!" he observed. "And we will do better. The Fortunate Frog is well named."

"Frogs become the prey of serpents," murmured Sung. "There are three in Sen Yang who will willingly attempt to seat you in the saddle of the Heaven Aspiring Steed without unnecessary delay. I have already seen them observing the crowd at your door, and their faces were as those of men who wear the wooden collar of torment."

"Doubtless you speak of my honourable brethren in the art of body-restoring? I have seen them before when we sat at the corner of the market place. Twice they have endeavoured to drive me away by the blows of hired men with clubs. But the people protected me. It will be the same again."

"The tiger may miss his spring at one who runs. The sleeping man is a sure prey," grunted Sung. "Also they now have time to consult together. Yet the chief of these men, the honourable Yat Foo, is elderly and rich. May this humble one suggest that soft words and a not inconsiderable present may incline his heart you-wards, or at the least move him to abstain from such actions as may end in my inconsiderable self having with great grief to arrange with an undertaker on your behalf?"

"Since he is the elder of the honourable brethren, etiquette plainly demands that I should call upon him," said Hi Ho softly. "And a bag of taels of superior silver and good weight would be a suitable indication of the reverence due to one far gone in years, even though he may have advanced into second childhood. I will go. You will go also, remaining at the door in an attitude of respect."

"And wearing beneath my coat a short sword of superior sharpness," agreed Sung. "I will fetch your horse that you may go with fitting dignity."

For near half a century, Dr. Yat Foo had practised in Sen Yang; so it was not surprising that he had a fine house surrounded by a high wall and excellently designed garden, with several servants whose manners were polished as jade.

Dr. Hi Ho was conducted to an inner apartment, the windows of which looked upon the garden, and there left while the servant sought his master. Dr. Hi looked forth and beheld a sight entrancing even to one who had in his professional capacity seen many of the pearls adorning the yamens of wealthy merchants and great mandarins, for the maiden reclining by the fish pond far outshone them all in pulchritude and the modesty of the regard with which she returned Dr. Hi Ho's respectful yet adoring gaze.

Rising with a grace that recalled the rhythmic movements of a slim bamboo swayed by the breeze of morning, the maiden approached the window.

"Honourable sir, be not impatient if my revered father delays giving himself the ineffable pleasure of beholding your moonlike countenance," she said in a voice in which blended the sweetest notes of singing birds. "At this hour he permits himself to repose after the labours of the morning."

"I trust his sleep may be sound and prolonged so that I may the longer enjoy the delight of looking upon you and hearing words that are as the sounds of a lute of jade and gold," replied Dr. Hi. "This despicable person's only claim to consideration is that he belongs to the same profession as your revered and honourable progenitor, having practised it with not inconsiderable success about the province. Now he has ventured to establish himself in this city and so has come to pay his respects to the great Dr. Yat Foo. The name is Hi Ho, favourably known as a healer of mandarins."

At these last words, the maiden's countenance, of a peach-like smoothness and rotundity, which had so far exhibited only the degree of interest demanded by politeness to a not ill-looking stranger, became animated by curiosity and concern, for, indeed, the name of Hi Ho had been spoken in that house in terms of no kindliness.

"My revered father is well stricken in years. It may be that age has soured a once-benevolent disposition, yet he has permitted himself to speak of the honourable Dr. Hi Ho in terms such as might be employed by the High Ones in reprimanding an inferior insect," she said hesitatingly. "Would it not be well, therefore, to prepare yourself for a rebuff?

"Do you, most marvellous blossom of the gardens of Paradise, share this inhospitable sentiment?" asked Hi Ho eagerly.

"I rejoice to talk to one so renowned as to cause the venerable one to break a jade vase of considerable value but unequalled ugliness and even to bestow hard words upon the humble person who addresses you," she replied, lowering her eyes as modesty required, but allowing a smile to uplift the corners of a mouth comparable only to the petals of a vermilion flower. "And this humble one ventures to assure Dr. Hi Ho that, in the household of Yat Foo, she will remain his admiring friend."

"The house of The Fortunate Frog is lonely. It lacks a mistress. Is it possible that this lowly one might hope to one day adorn his hearth with a graceful shoot from the gnarled trunk of the venerable Yat Foo?" asked Hi. Practice with the more exacting tools of his profession had taught him to reach his objective with speed and precision.

"It is written that many things, though possible, are too often difficult of accomplishment," she murmured. "Yet to a person of such attainments as the honourable Dr. Hi Ho, such a transplantation might not be impossible. But now I must go. If it were known to the venerable and irascible one that I had talked with you, many blows from a heavy cane would be my portion."

"But I must see you again. I do not know your name!" said Hi Ho urgently.

"About the falling of night I will be in that summerhouse. And the name is Willow Leaf," whispered the girl, and slipped softly out of sight.

A moment later a servant, whose countenance having once encountered a sword, was destitute of a nose, appeared and, in tones of dislike, bade Dr. Hi Ho follow him to the presence of the master.

Dr. Yat Foo's person, despite a plenitude of good food, was of a meagre habit, while his thin face, creased with many wrinkles, was distorted by malevolence as he glared at his visitor. Yet habit was strong and he could not refrain from making the usual gestures of courtesy. He bowed.

"This humble and despicable roof is honoured by the presence of the learned and benevolent Dr. Hi Ho," he said. "To what happy cause may I attribute the delight of beholding his luminous and sagacious countenance?"

"To the desire of basking for a moment in the rays of wisdom emanating from the person of the world-famed Dr. Yat Foo and of hearing his mellifluous voice," replied Hi Ho. "Also, as a mark of the esteem in which I hold him, to lay at his feet this small token of regard."

Dr. Foo took the bag eagerly enough, weighed it speculatively and laid it beside him.

"It shall be expended in works of benevolence," he murmured. "Doubtless, my son, you are proceeding further northwards in a day or so?"

"I had proposed to bask in the effulgence of the light cast upon Sen Yang by your learned self for a number of years only to be limited by the decree of the Rulers of the Upper Sphere," murmured Hi Ho. "I have thrown my good money away," he thought.

"You reside in the house named The Fortunate Frog, I am told. That is a misfortune. The house is an unlucky one. Short is the span of those who dwell there," went on Yat Foo.

"I will consult an astrologer. Perhaps the luck may be made to change," suggested Hi Ho with a smile.

"I am something of an astrologer and I have read in the stars that the town of Sen Yang is unlucky for anyone of the honourable house of Ho," replied Yat Foo in a voice of doom.

"Is it permitted to ask what form this ill-luck will take?" asked Hi Ho, still smiling, though he had received notice to quit.

"The voice of the stars has spoken with no incertitude. Head and body batterings, slicing with swords and knives, and a funeral marred by the absence of a head from the honoured remains are but too plainly indicated. Be warned, my son. In the fine province of Sze Chuan, fortune awaits you. Seek it without delay."

"One hundred and five persons sought my aid this morning. Numerous others will undoubtedly arrive to-morrow, while I have received requests to visit several wealthy men in their own yamens. Shall I leave them to perish because the stars have spoken? Perhaps, Oh! venerated Yat Foo, your ears have mistaken the words. Have I your leave to withdraw my humble and despicable person from your honoured roof?"

"Your going will be as the withdrawal of the sun. May your health continue to be excellent—yet I fear it will not," quoth Yat Foo, and so bowed him out.

Escorted by the no-nosed servant, he reached the street and the waiting Sung, mounted his horse and rode home through a rosy dream inspired not by the prospect of dissolution offered by Yat Foo's words, but by the thought of presently seeing his daughter. He ordered a light repast, and having eaten, lay down to repose for a little before setting out to visit Yat Foo's garden. Meanwhile, Yat Foo had summoned the other two old-established doctors of Sen Yang, men of substance both, Dr. See Hop and Dr. Lu. Younger than Foo, they might be assumed to have a greater interest in suppressing competition before it could affect them adversely. Yat Foo came to the point with admirable—and unusual—brevity.

"This mangy dog, Hi Ho, who calls himself a healer, has been here. I told him that the climate of Sen Yang was unhealthy for him. He will not take the warning. If he remains, there are lean days for all of us, for the people, unmindful of what we have done for them in the past, flock to him. My man Chai can break a head very skilfully. The river will carry a body far."

"That is not the way!" said Dr. See Hop. "The fellow has great friends. He procured for one great lord the felicity of a son and another he has certainly cured of jaundice. Also, the mandarin of the province, Sun Lo Chi, is said to be about to visit us, and he might be moved to make loud noises if a healer disappears, accompanied by questioning and slicings. Already Dr. Lu and I have considered the matter."

"Thus!" intoned Dr. Lu pompously, for he was a person of girth. "Let us stir up the people against him. Let a body be procured, one of a traveller who is a stranger. Let the body be bestowed in the outhouse of the house of Hi Ho. Then let an old woman—my sister will play the part, for she seldom stirs from my house and few know her—let her make an outcry, swearing that Hi Ho has slain the man to calcine his bones for medicine and that he is her sister's son. She shall make much outcry. The people will follow her to the garden of Hi Ho. There they will find the body. And because they are stupid and ignorant and there is good loot in Hi Ho's house, they will fall upon him. And perhaps in the riot someone will deal Hi Ho a blow that will send him to the Upper Air without more ado. At the least, no more people will crowd about his door for healing."

"Your words are wise," murmured Yat Foo. "I see but one difficulty. We have no body prepared, yet we should move swiftly before Sun Lo Chi comes to us."

"We have your headbreaker, Chai. Let him go forth in the dusk and make a body ready. Travellers are often late upon the road. Then let him take the body to Hi's garden and leave the rest to me—and the people."

"It is good!" agreed Yat Foo. "So it shall be. Now let us instruct Chai. He is stupid, but when once he understands he remembers."


Sen Yang had a wall. Once this wall had been strong and high, a protection against brigands and spoilers. But time and neglect, and the attentions of builders who found in it a quarry, had made many gaps in it, and though the gates were solemnly shut at sundown, belated travellers usually entered by the nearest hole.

Dr. Hi Ho had noted that Dr. Yat Foo's garden backed against the town wall. He had also observed that though there was no gap just there, the upper tiers of stones had been removed, while cracks offered a ready foothold. As darkness fell, he climbed into the garden and sought the summerhouse. Willow Leaf, clad in shimmering grey silk, gleamed in the obscurity.

"Flower of Paradise!" began Dr. Hi Ho. "Redolent garden of sweet herbs! Moon of—"

"Hush! At another time, honourable Dr. Ho, I will listen to sweet words. But now listen to mine. Mischief is intended towards you. I do not know what, but Chai, who is a person of evil countenance and a heart of stone, goes presently forth to accomplish it. Be silent! Let us watch the going out. He comes!"

The execrable Chai appeared walking upon feet of silence and bearing a short but heavy club which might be concealed in the sleeve. He climbed the wall.

"Moon of Endless Delight!" murmured Dr. Hi Ho. "I will follow. It may be that the Watchers will offer to this person an opportunity of connecting the edge of this sword with the head of the abominable Chai. Tomorrow at this hour I will return."

And without further ado, for the need was pressing, he too surmounted the wall and followed the shadowy figure, moving silently in the direction of the town's eastern gate. At a little distance from it, Chai took to the road and there loitered. Dr. Hi Ho, perceiving that the time was not yet come for any attempt upon the fellow, crouched by the wayside.

Two travellers, well mounted and carrying drawn swords against the chances of the road, passed at a trot. The execrable Chai, perceiving the gleam of steel, with admirable discretion withdrew himself from their observation behind a clump of weeds. They passed into the town through a convenient hole in the wall. For a little was silence. Then came a solitary figure, walking with the gait of one whose honourable feet are incommoded by the roughness of the way. Even in the gloom it was plain that he was a beggar, for his clothing was ragged and he bore a bowl.

Chai rose from his lurking place as he passed and suddenly, without warning or even a polite word to indicate to the stranger that he was about to pass into a state of no-existence, smote him heavily upon the head with his loaded club.

Dr. Hi Ho, greatly interested in this manifestation of the essential baseness of the execrable Chai, remained quiescent until, having hoisted the victim upon his broad shoulders, the slayer set off once more around the walls. Dr. Hi Ho followed at a discreet distance.

Thus he perceived the execrable Chai enter the town once more by a gap in the wall, well shrouded by creepers and scale the wall of a garden beyond.

And now Dr. Hi Ho's interest quickened, for though time had been lacking to explore the vicinity of the Street of the Evening Star, the dilapidated summerhouse to which Chai bore the defunct was all too familiar, for it was his own. Dr. Ho hesitated. Should he draw his sword and, hamstringing Chai, call for help? Or, slaying him outright, dispose of the bodies with the help of Sung, thus leaving the atrocious Dr. Yat Foo in doubt of the fate of his emissary?

But while he hesitated, Chai, with movements of much celerity, had sped across the garden and, surmounting the wall at another place, proceeded along the street into the Everywhere.

Dr. Hi Ho meditated no longer. He ran to his house and summoning Sung, told him of what had occurred. Sung sighed.

"Honourable sir, there is but one thing which a wise man may do. Let us bear this not-breathing one to the garden of the honourable Dr. Foo and there bury him, but not deeply. A word to the magistrate that the honourable Foo employs such remains for the practice of magic is then clearly indicated. Let us hasten."

This advice, being at once sound and practical, they hastened to the summerhouse, bearing a light and the wherewithal for the digging of a grave. By the light, Dr. Hi Ho inspected the defunct. And at once something which the stupidity of Chai had failed to note, became apparent. Though outwardly clad in the rags of a beggar, the body was inwardly covered with garments of superior silk; while a long knife which, but for a fallacious reliance upon the protection afforded by his poor appearance might have saved his life, was of excellent quality and adorned with jewels of price.

"Such garments are too good for the tomb!" murmured Sung.

"Are we robbers? Be silent!" quoth Dr. Hi sternly. "Yet it may be that he wears some amulet by which doubtless sorrowing relatives—Ah!" He paused, then bent a listening ear. "Amazing is the no-perception of the villain Chai. This man lives! Let us bear him within and struggle with the Demon for his life!"

Shortly after, faint groans, presently rising to prolonged howls arose from the house of The Fortunate Frog as, relieved by timely bloodletting and stimulated by skilful touches of a cautery iron, the victim of ill-directed endeavour struggled back to consciousness.

Towards dawn, revived by wine, sustained by a bowl of chicken soup and four black eggs warranted a century old, which Dr. Hi Ho kept in stock for his better class patients, the apparently dead recovered sufficiently to give an account of himself and pour out his thanks to his preserver.

The rosy flush of dawn suffused the Upper Air as, leaving the sleeping man in the charge of the wife of Sung, a person of discreet years and well versed in cookery, Dr. Hi Ho and the faithful Sung, well armed, though their garments concealed their weapons, proceeded to the residence of the honourable Dr. Yat Foo.

Early though the hour, there were yet signs of activity by the gate of the dean of Sen Yang. Two chairs stood there, each with its chairmen. Dr. Hi Ho recognized them. They belonged to the honourable Drs. See Hop and Lu. Glowering in the gateway was the execrable Chai.

"Lead me to the presence of the learned and venerable doctor, your honourable master," said Dr. Hi Ho, smiling with the affability of a tiger of the hills confronting a well-fed but unarmed traveller. "Celerity is indicated. If it is not forthcoming, the stars prophesy disaster to his palatial dwelling and all within."

With a growl of confusion, Chai led the way into the yamen, and so to the presence of Dr. Yat Foo, who, in act of concluding the last arrangements for the stirring up of the dregs of Sen Yang against Dr. Hi Ho, regarded him with consternation, while his eminent and honourable colleagues permitted their mouths to display their yellow teeth.

"Revered and honourable brethren!" began Dr. Hi Ho, bowing ceremoniously to each in turn. "Your very humble and ignorant brother comes to render thanks to you for the kindness displayed in the dark hours. Well does this person know that each of you could have revived the honourable and eminent person sent to him by the hands of the strong and dexterous No-Nose, Chai. Yet perceiving that he was young and in need of help, your magnanimity selected Hi Ho. The great Sun Lo Chi has been pleased to thank him in terms that modesty does not allow him to repeat, while promising him other rewards of a more substantial if less gratifying sort."

The three forgot politeness. They glared, they stared.

"Sun Lo Chi?" cried Yat Foo. "The mandarin who comes to dwell in our midst?"

"The same," quoth Dr. Hi Ho blandly. "A person of surpassing merit who, that he might the better observe the extortions of minor officials, has been traversing his province in the garb of a beggar—with his soldiers and yamen men a little behind him. They are already in the city. Sun Lo Chi will presently send them forth to seek a person with no nose, who, he has told me, assaulted him with head batterings. Absence is indicated for that person, lest there be slicings. Assault upon the body of a high official is bitterly punished."

There was a stir by the door. Chai became suddenly notable by his absence. With one accord the three smiled and nodded to each other; with no word spoken, they were agreed.

"My son," said Yat Foo, "in the name of we three, the healers of Sen Yang, this person bids you welcome. Presents of a quality befitting one of your transcendent merits shall soon be within your honourable house. Commend us to the noble Sun Lo Chi, in case there should be some of his household too mean in degree to deserve your skill."

"Truly it shall be so," murmured Dr. Hi Ho. "There is but one thing more. This person lacks a wife to adorn his hearth and furnish him with sons who shall make the offerings when he has by the decree of the High Ones become an ancestor. The Willow is a tree of grateful shade and peculiar fertility. A Willow Leaf is a graceful and fitting decoration for an abode, mean yet not unfurnished with all that may be required by the household of a humble but flourishing healer of bodies."

"To be allied with the ancient and honourable house of Ho is the one wish which this person desires to gratify," said Dr. Yat Foo. "A go-between of renowned skill and delicacy shall wait upon the honourable Dr. Hi Ho within the hour. All shall be concluded swiftly. And now, what say the Sages? 'Of all precious things, nought is better than a cup of wine drunk by brethren in amity.'"

And solemnly, fraternally, the medical faculty of Sen Yang drank together.


THE END

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