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First Chapter: AN UNEXPECTED MEETING IN A GARDEN PAVILION; A FIENDISH MURDER IS REPORTED TO JUDGE DEE
'A judge must brave the foaming billows of hate, deceit, and doubt,
The only bridge across is straight and narrow as a rapier's edge.
He may not lose his foothold once, once pause to listen to his heart, Heed
Justice only, lodestar unfailing, though always remote and cold.'
Last night I was sitting all alone in my garden pavilion, enjoying the cool evening breeze. The hour was late, my wives had retired to their respective quarters long before.
The entire evening I had been working hard in my library, keeping my boy-servant busy getting the books I wanted from the shelves, and making him copy out the passages I needed.
As you know I devote my leisure hours to writing a compendium of crime and detection in our present great Ming Dynasty, adding also an Appendix containing the biographies of the famous detectives of former days. I am now working on the biography of Dec Jen-djieh, the eminent statesman who lived seven hundred years ago. In the earlier half of his career, when he was still serving as district magistrate in the provinces, he solved an amazing number of mysterious crimes, so that now he is known chiefly as 'Judge Dee,' the master-detective of our illustrious past.
After I had sent my yawning boy-servant off to bed, I had written a long letter to my elder brother, who is serving as Chief Secretary to the Prefect of Pei-chow, far up in the north. He was appointed there two years ago, leaving his old house in the next street here in my care. I wrote him about my discovery that Pei-chow had been the last post where judge Dee served as magistrate, before he was appointed to a high office in the capital.
I asked my brother, therefore, to search the local records for me; perhaps he would find interesting data on crimes solved there by judge Dee. I knew he would do his best, for we have always been very close together.
When I had finished my letter, I noticed that it was very hot in my library. I strolled out into the garden where a cool breeze was blowing over the lotus pond. I decided that before turning in I would sit for a while in the small pavilion I had built in the farthest corner, by the side of a cluster of banana trees. I was not too keen on going to bed, for to tell you the truth there was some domestic trouble recently when I introduced into my household a third wife. She is a lovely woman, and also quite well educated. I fail to understand why my first and second lady took an instant dislike to her, and must grudge every night I spend with her. Now I had promiscd to stay the night in the quarters of my First Lady, and I must confess that I did not feel in too great a hurry to proceed there.
Sitting in the comfortable bamboo armchair, I leisurely fanned myself with my fan of crane feathers, contemplating the garden bathed in the cool rays of the silvery moon. Suddenly I saw the small back gate open. Who shall describe my delighted surprise when my older brother came walking in!
I jumped up and rushed down the garden path to meet him.
'What brings You here?' I exclaimed, 'why didn't you let me know you were coming south?'
'Quite unexpectedly,' my brother said, 'I had to depart. My first thought was to come and see you, I hope you'll excuse the late hour!'
I affectionately took him by his arm and led him to the pavilion. I noticed that his sleeve was damp and cold.
When I had made him sit down in my armchair, I took the chair opposite and looked at him solicitously. He had lost much weight, his face was grey and his eyes seemed to bulge slightly.
'It may be the effect of the moonlight,' I said worriedly, 'but I think you look ill. I suppose the journey down from Pei-chow was very tiring?'
'It proved difficult indeed,' my brother said quietly, 'I had hoped to be here four days earlier, but there was so much mist.' He brushed a patch of dried mud from his simple white robe, then went on, 'I have not been feeling too well of late, you know, I suffer from a scaring pain here.' He delicately touched the top of his head. 'It goes deep down behind my eyes. I am also subject to fits of shivering.'
'The hot climate here in our native place will do you good!' I said consolingly, 'and tomorrow we'll let our old physician have a look at you. Now tell me all the news from Pei-chow!'
He gave me a concise account of his work there, it seemed he got along quite well with his chief, the Prefect. But when he came to his private affairs he looked worried. His First Lady had been acting rather strangely recently, he said. Her attitude to him had changed, he did not know why. He gave me to understand that there was some connection between this and his sudden departure. He started to shiver violently, and I did not press him further for details about a problem which evidently caused him much distress.
To divert his thoughts I brought up the subject of Judge Dee, telling him about the letter I had just written.
'Oh yes,' my brother said, 'Pei-chow they tell a weird old tale about three dark mysteries that judge Dee solved when he was serving there as magistrate. Having been handed down for generations, and being told and re-told in the tea houses, this story has of course been much embellished by fancy.'The Chinese Nail Murders