Read an Excerpt
The Lacquer Screen
A Chinese Detective
By Robert van Gulik
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1962 Robert van Gulik
All rights reserved.
He remained standing just inside the door of his library, feeling utterly confused. His vision was blurred, he did not dare walk to his desk. Leaning his back against the doorjamb for support he closed his eyes and, slowly raising his hands to his head, pressed his temples. The splitting headache was now changing into a dull, throbbing pain. His ears ceased ringing. He now could hear in the distant backyard of his residence the familiar sounds of the servants, starting again upon their household tasks after the siesta. Soon his steward would come with the afternoon tea.
With a tremendous effort he took hold of himself. He noticed with relief that his eyes were getting better. He quickly raised his hands and scrutinized them intently. He did not see any bloodstains. He looked up, at his large writing-desk of massive blackwood. Its polished top mirrored the flowers in the green jade vase. They were wilting; he idly reflected that his wife would have to replace them, she always chose them herself from the garden. Suddenly there was an empty feeling in the pit of his stomach. He frantically stumbled into the room and succeeded in reaching his desk. Panting heavily he made his way round it, supporting himself on its smooth edge. Then he let himself down into his armchair.
He gripped the armrests, steadying himself against a new attack of dizziness. When it had passed he opened his eyes. He saw the high lacquer screen standing against the wall opposite. Quickly he averted his gaze, but the screen seemed to move round with his eyes. A violent shiver shook his tall, spare frame. Instinctively he pulled his loose houserobe closer. Was this the end, was he becoming mad? Cold sweat pearled on his brow, he thought he was going to be sick. He bent his head and looked fixedly at the document his counsellor had placed on the desk, trying desperately to collect his thoughts.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw his steward enter, carrying the tea-tray. He wanted to answer his obsequious greetings, but his parched tongue was thick and swollen. When the elderly man, sedately dressed in a long grey robe and wearing a black skull-cap, respectfully handed him a cup of tea, the magistrate quickly took it in his trembling hand and tasted it. If he drank more, he would feel better. Why didn't the doddering old fool go away? What was he waiting for? He moved his lips to make an angry remark. Then he noticed the large envelope on the tray.
'This letter, Your Honour,' the old steward said, 'was brought just now by a visitor, a Mr Shen.'
He stared at the letter, not yet trusting himself to raise his shaking hand and take it. The address, written in a bold, official-looking handwriting, read: 'To Teng Kan, Magistrate of the District Wei-ping. Personal.' In the lower left corner was the large red seal of the Prefecture.
'Since it is marked personal,' the steward said in his dry, precise voice, 'I thought I'd better bring it to Your Honour directly.'
The magistrate took the envelope and reached mechanically for his bamboo paper knife. As one of the hundreds of district magistrates, he was but a small cog in the colossal administrative machinery of the mighty Chinese Tang Empire. And although in his own district of Wei-ping he was the highest government authority, he was only one of the dozen or so district magistrates under the Prefect in Pien-foo. The steward was right, a visitor carrying a personal letter from the Prefect must not be kept waiting. Thank Heaven, he could think straight again!
He slit the letter open. It contained a sheet of official notepaper, inscribed with only a few lines.
'Confidential. The bearer of the present, Dee Jen-djieh, magistrate of the district Peng-lai, having attended a conference in the Prefecture and now returning to his post, has been granted one week's leave to be spent in Wei-ping, strictly incognito. Extend to the said Dee all possible assistance.'
Slowly Magistrate Teng folded the letter. His colleague from Peng-lai couldn't have arrived at a more awkward moment. And why did the fellow come incognito? Was there trouble brewing? The Prefect was known for his unconventional methods, he might well have sent this man Dee on a secret investigation. Should he put him off, saying he was ill? No, that would excite the suspicion of his household, for he had been perfectly well in the morning. He quickly gulped down the rest of the tea.
Now he felt better. He thought his voice sounded nearly normal when he addressed the steward:
'Pour out another cup, then give me my formal dress.'
The old man helped his master to don a long robe of brown brocade, and handed him a square cap of black gauze. The magistrate tied the sash round his waist. 'You can now bring Mr Shen,' he said. 'I'll receive him here in my library.'
As soon as the steward had left, Magistrate Teng walked over to the broad ebony bench reserved for receiving visitors. It stood against the side wall, under a scroll-painting of a landscape. He sat down on the left corner and verified that only half of the lacquer screen was visible from there. He went back to his desk. Thank Heaven that he could walk steadily again. But would his mind remain clear? As he was standing there, lost in thought, the door opened and the steward came in. He handed his master a red visiting-card inscribed with two large characters giving the name Shen Mo. In the lower left corner was added in smaller writing Commission Agent.
A tall, broad-shouldered man with a flowing black beard and long side-whiskers came in and made a bow, his arms folded in the capacious sleeves of his faded blue gown. His well-worn black cap showed no insignia of rank. Magistrate Teng answered his bow, and spoke a few words of welcome. Then he motioned his guest to sit down on the bench, on the left of the low tea-table. He seated himself on the other side and gave the steward who stood hovering by the door a peremptory sign to leave them alone.
When the door had closed, the bearded man gave his host a keen glance from his quick, alert eyes. He spoke in a deep, pleasant voice:
'I have long been looking forward to meeting you, Teng. Even when I was still posted in the capital, I heard you praised everywhere as one of our great poets. And also, of course, as an exceptionally able administrator.'
Magistrate Teng bowed.
'You are too kind, Dee,' he said. 'Now and then I scribble a few verses, just to while away an hour of leisure. I had hardly dared to hope that a busy colleague, well known as a connoisseur of letters and, moreover, as a zealous detector of crimes, would deign to glance at my poor work.' He paused. The dizziness was coming back, he found it difficult to continue the usual courteous exchanges. He hesitated, then resumed: 'His Excellency the Prefect stated that you are here strictly incognito. Does that mean that your visit is connected with some criminal investigation? Excuse my abruptness, but ...'
'Not at all!' Judge Dee said with an apologetic smile. 'I didn't know that the Prefect's letter of introduction was so tersely phrased. I do hope it didn't cause you undue worry! The fact is that I found my duties in Peng-lai quite strenuous—doubtless owing to my lack of experience. Peng-lai is my first post as district magistrate, you know. I was just thinking of taking a brief holiday, when I was summoned to the conference on coastal defence in the Prefecture. My district faces the Korean peninsula across the sea, and our Korean vassals are rather restive at present. The Prefect kept me busy from morning till night. A high official from the capital was present also ... well, you know how it is when one has to be at the beck and call of those exalted persons! The conference lasted four days, and when I get back to Peng-lai I'll doubtless find plenty of arrears to make up. Therefore I applied for a short holiday, to be passed as a tourist here in your district, famous for its many historical sites and its scenic beauty—so exquisitely described in your poetry. That, and that only, is the reason why I asked to remain incognito, and why I call myself here Shen Mo, a commission agent.'
'I see,' his host said with a nod. He thought bitterly: 'On a holiday, forsooth! If the Prefect had said so in the letter, I could have put him off for a day or two.' Aloud he continued: 'It is indeed a relief to be able to dispense with all the pomp and circumstance incidental to our office for a while, and to go about freely as a simple citizen! But what about the persons of your suite?'
'As a matter of fact,' Judge Dee replied, 'I took only one of my lieutenants along with me, an able fellow called Chiao Tai.'
'Doesn't that encourage, ah ... undue familiarity on the part of your subordinate?' Teng asked doubtfully.
'I must confess I never thought of that!' the judge replied with an amused smile. 'Could you recommend a small but clean hostel where we can stay? And what are the most important monuments that one should see here?'
Teng took a sip from his teacup. Then he said:
'I am distressed that your desire for anonymity deprives me of the pleasure of having you stay with me here as my honoured guest. Since, however, you insist, I advise you to stay in the Hostel of the Flying Crane, which has an excellent reputation and which is, moreover, located not far from the tribunal here. As to the sights, I'll introduce you to my counsellor and general assistant Pan Yoo-te. He was born and bred here, and knows every square inch of this town. Allow me to take you to him, he has his office at the back of the chancery.'
Magistrate Teng rose. As Judge Dee followed his example, he saw that his host suddenly tottered on his feet. He steadied himself, gripping the armrest of the bench with both hands.
'Aren't you feeling well?' the judge asked anxiously.
'Nothing, a slight dizziness!' Teng said with a thin smile. 'I am a bit tired.' He looked testily at the steward, who had just come in. He bowed deeply before his master and said in a low voice:
'I apologize for disturbing Your Honour, but the chambermaid just reported to me that the Great Mistress has not yet made her appearance after the siesta, and that the door of her bedchamber is locked.'
'That's true, I forgot to tell you just now,' Magistrate Teng said. 'After the noon meal she received an urgent summons from her elder sister to go to her country house. Inform the servants.' As the steward hesitated, Teng asked, irritated: 'Well, what are you waiting for? Can't you see that I am busy?'
'I have to report also,' the old man mumbled with evident embarrassment, 'that someone has broken the large vase in front of the bedroom. I——'
'Later!' Magistrate Teng cut him short. He conducted Judge Dee to the door.
While leading him across the garden that separated the magistrate's residence from the tribunal, Teng said suddenly:
'I sincerely hope that during your stay here you will not entirely withhold from me the advantage of your conversation, Dee. Please call on me at any time. I have a vexing problem I would like to discuss with you, some time. To the left here, please.'
They crossed the large main courtyard of the tribunal compound. In the building opposite Teng preceded the judge into a small but very neat office. The lean man who sat behind the desk piled with official documents and files jumped up when he saw his chief. He motioned a maidservant who was trying to efface herself in a corner to make herself scarce, then came limping forward and made a deep bow. Magistrate Teng said in a measured voice:
'This is Mr Shen, a ... ah, commission agent, who brought a letter of introduction from the Prefect. He wishes to stay here a few days to visit the sights of our district. You'll give him all information he needs.' And, turning to Judge Dee: 'You'll kindly excuse me now, I must prepare myself for the afternoon session of the court.' He bowed and left.
Counsellor Pan bade the judge sit down in a large chair opposite his desk, and made the common polite inquiries. But he seemed preoccupied and nervous. Since Magistrate Teng also had seemed rather short with him, Judge Dee surmised that a particularly difficult case was pending in court. But when he asked the counsellor about it, Pan quickly replied:
'Oh no, we have only the usual routine matters to deal with in the tribunal. Fortunately this is a rather quiet district!'
'I asked,' Judge Dee said, 'because during our conversation just now the magistrate hinted at some vexing problem he was confronted with.'
Pan lifted his grey eyebrows.
'Nothing I know of,' he said. The same maid came in again. 'Come back later!' he snapped, and she quickly disappeared. Then Pan continued to the judge with a contrite expression: 'Those stupid girls! It seems that someone broke a large antique vase standing in Mrs Teng's private quarters. My master valued that vase highly, it was an heirloom. None of the maids wants to admit she has done it, so the steward asked me to question them and find the culprit.'
'Has the magistrate no assistant besides you?' Judge Dee asked. 'As a rule a magistrate has three or four lieutenants on his personal staff, doesn't he? And he usually takes them along with him to every new post.'
'Yes, that's true. But my master didn't follow that custom. He is a man of rather retiring disposition, you know, a bit stand-offish, if I may say so. I myself belong to the permanent staff of the tribunal here.' He frowned, then went on: 'The magistrate must be greatly distressed about that vase! I thought he wasn't looking very well when he came in just now.'
'Does he suffer from some chronic disease?' the judge asked. 'I too noticed the pallor of his face.'
'Oh no,' the counsellor replied. 'He's never complained about his health, and he's even been exceptionally cheerful of late. A month or so ago he slipped in the courtyard and sprained his ankle, but that has completely healed. It's the summer heat that bothers him, I suppose. Now, let me see what places you ought to visit first, Mr Shen. There is ...'
He set out on a long description of the sights of Wei-ping. Judge Dee found him a cultured man, well read and with a deep interest in local history. It was with regret that he rose at last and said he had to leave because his travelling companion was waiting for him in a teahouse, on the corner behind the tribunal compound.
'In that case,' Pan said, 'I'll take you to the emergency exit at the back. That'll save you making a detour through the front gate of the tribunal.'
He took the judge back to the magistrate's residence; despite his clubfoot he walked with ease. They went through a long, dark, windowless corridor that seemed to run round the house. As Pan unlocked the small iron door at the end he said with a smile:
'In a way this exit is also a sight of our town! It was built more than seventy years ago as a secret entrance, when there was an armed rebellion here. As you know, at that time the governor, the famous——'
Judge Dee hastily cut him short by thanking him profusely. He stepped out into the quiet back street, and walked along in the direction Pan had indicated.
He found the teahouse where he had left Chiao Tai on the next corner. Although the siesta was only just over, the open terrace was already crowded. Most of the tables were occupied by well-dressed people, leisurely sipping tea and nibbling dried melon seeds. Judge Dee walked straight to a table where a husky man was sitting, clad in a simple brown robe and wearing a round black cap. He was engrossed in reading a book. When the judge pulled back the chair opposite, the man jumped up. Judge Dee himself was tall, but Chiao Tai topped him by nearly an inch. He had the thick neck, heavy wide shoulders and narrow waist of a professional boxer. His beardless, rather handsome face lit up as he said:
'You are back sooner than I thought, Magistrate!'
'Less of the "magistrate"!' Judge Dee warned him. 'Remember that we are here incognito!' He took the clothes bundle from the chair and put it on the floor. Sitting down, he clapped his hands and ordered the waiter to bring a new pot of tea.
Excerpted from The Lacquer Screen by Robert van Gulik. Copyright © 1962 Robert van Gulik. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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