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The Red Pavilion
A Judge Dee Mystery
By Robert van Gulik
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1961 Robert van Gulik
All rights reserved.
'With the Festival of the Dead going on, sir, this is our busiest month in summer,' the portly innkeeper said. Then he repeated: 'I am sorry, sir.'
He looked with genuine regret at the tall, bearded gentleman standing before his counter. Although the traveller wore a plain brown robe and his black cap did not show any insignia of rank, his air of authority marked him as a high official—the kind of guest one could charge a good price for a night's lodging.
A vexed look crossed the bearded man's heavy features. Wiping the perspiration from his forehead he said to the burly fellow who was with him:
'I had forgotten about the Festival of the Dead! The altars put up by the roadside should have reminded me. Well, this is the third hostel we've tried, we'd better give up and ride on to the city of Chin-hwa tonight. What time could we be there?'
His companion shrugged his broad shoulders.
'That's hard to say, sir. I don't know this northern part of the Chin-hwa district too well, and the darkness won't make things easier. We'll have to cross two or three waterways, too. We might get to the city towards midnight—if we are lucky with the ferries, that is.'
The old clerk who was trimming the candle on the counter had succeeded in catching the manager's eye. He now spoke up in a high, piping voice:
'What about letting the gentleman have the Red Pavilion?'
The manager rubbed his round chin, then said doubtfully:
'Fine apartments, of course. They face west, cool all through summer. But they haven't been properly aired, and ...'
'Since they are empty I'll take them!' the bearded man interrupted hurriedly.' We have been on the road since early this morning.' He added to his companion: 'Fetch our saddlebags and hand our horses to the groom!'
'You are welcome to the apartments, sir,' the innkeeper resumed, 'but it's my duty to inform you that ...'
'I don't mind paying something extra!' the other cut him short again.' Give me the register!'
The manager opened the bulky ledger on the page marked '28th day of the 7th moon' and pushed it over to him. The guest moistened the writing brush on the inkslab and wrote in a bold hand: 'Dee Jen-djieh, magistrate of the district Poo-yang, on his way from the capital back to his post. Accompanied by one assistant called Ma Joong.' As he gave the ledger back his eye fell on the hostel's name, written on the cover in two large characters: 'Eternal Bliss.'
'A signal honour to have the magistrate of our neighbour district here!' the manager said suavely. But when he was staring at their retreating backs he muttered: 'That's awkward! The fellow is a notorious busy-body, I hope he won't find out ...' He worriedly shook his head.
The old clerk took Judge Dee across the entrance hall to the central courtyard, flanked by large, two-storied buildings. Loud voices and peals of laughter resounded from behind the lighted paper windows. 'All occupied, every single room!' the greybeard muttered as he led the judge through the high ornamental gate at the back of the courtyard.
They were now in a charming, walled-in garden. The moonlight shone on the cleverly arranged flowering shrubs and the still surface of an artificial goldfish pond. Judge Dee wiped off his face with his long sleeve; even out in the open here the air was hot and oppressive. Confused sounds of singing and laughter and the thrumming of stringed instruments came from the house on his right.
'They start early here,' he remarked.
'The morning is the only time one doesn't hear music on Paradise Island, sir!' the old man said proudly.' All the houses start a little before noon. Thereafter late luncheons merge with early dinners, then again late dinners with early suppers, and all houses also provide breakfast the next morning. You'll find Paradise Island a lively spot, sir. A lively spot!'
'I hope I shan't notice that in my suite. I had a strenuous ride today, and I have to go on tomorrow morning. I want to go to bed early. I trust that my rooms are quiet?'
'Certainly, sir, very quiet indeed!' the greybeard mumbled. He quickly walked on and took the judge into a long, semi-dark corridor. At the end was a high door.
The old clerk raised his lampion and let its light fall on the panels covered with intricate woodcarving, lavishly decorated with gold lacquer. Pushing the heavy door open, he remarked:
'The suite is located right at the back of the hostel, sir. It has a beautiful view on the park. And very quiet.'
He showed the judge a small antechamber, with a door on either side. He pulled the door-curtain of the one on the right aside, and preceded him into a spacious room. Going straight to the centre table, he lighted the two silver candelabra standing there, then went to open the door and the window in the back wall.
Judge Dee noticed that the air was rather musty, but the room seemed comfortable enough. The table and the four high-backed chairs were made of carved sandalwood, left its natural colour and polished to a glossy finish. The couch against the wall on the right was of the same material, and so was the elegant dressing-table opposite—all good antique pieces. The scroll paintings of birds and flowers decorating the walls were of superior quality. He saw that the back door opened on a broad veranda, screened on all three sides by thick clusters of wistaria hanging down from the bamboo trellis overhead. In front and below, there was a row of dense, high shrubbery, and beyond a large park, lighted by lampions attached to garlands of coloured silk hung among the tall trees. Farther on stood a two-storied building, half-hidden among the green foliage. Except for the muted music coming from there it was indeed rather quiet.
'This is the sitting-room, sir,' the greybeard said obsequiously. 'The bedroom is over on the other side.'
He took the judge back to the antechamber and unlocked the solid door on the left, using a key of intricate pattern.
'Why such an elaborate lock?' Judge Dee asked.' One rarely finds locks on inside doors. Are you afraid of thieves?'
The other smiled slyly.
'The guests here like ah ... privacy, sir!' He chuckled, then went on quickly: 'The lock was broken the other day, but it was replaced by one of the same type that can be opened from outside and inside.'
The bedroom proved to be luxuriously furnished also. The enormous canopied bedstead on the left, the table and chairs in front of it, and the wash-stand and dressing-table in the opposite corner were all made of carved wood, lacquered a bright red. The curtains of the bedstead were of heavy red brocade, and a thick red carpet covered the floor. When the clerk had opened the shutters of the single window in the back wall, the judge saw through the heavy iron bars again the park at the back of the hostel.
'This suite is called the Red Pavilion because the bedroom is all done in that colour, I suppose?'
'Indeed sir. It dates from eighty years back. When the hostel was built, in fact. I'll send a maid with the tea. Shall Your Honour dine outside?'
'No. Have my evening rice served here.'
When they had gone back to the sitting-room, Ma Joong came in carrying two large saddlebags. The greybeard disappeared noiselessly on his felt shoes. Ma Joong opened the bags and began to lay out Judge Dee's robes on the couch. He had a broad, heavy-jowled face, smooth but for a short moustache. Originally he had been a highwayman, but some years previously he had reformed and entered Judge Dee's service. As an expert boxer and wrestler he had proved very useful to the judge in arresting violent criminals and executing other dangerous tasks.
'You can sleep on the couch here,' the judge told him. 'It's only for one night, and that'll save you the trouble of looking for a lodging outside.'
'Oh, I'll manage to find a place all right!' his lieutenant replied airily.
'As long as you don't spend all your money on wine and women!' Judge Dee said dryly. 'Paradise Island thrives on gambling and whoring, they know how to fleece people!'
'Not me!' Ma Joong said with a grin.' Why do they call it an island, anyway?'
'Because it's surrounded by waterways, of course. But let's keep to our subject! Remember the name of the main bridge, Ma Joong, the stone arch we saw when we arrived here. It's called Soul-changing Bridge, because the hectic atmosphere of Paradise Island changes everyone who comes here into a reckless wastrel! And you have plenty to spend, too. Didn't the inheritance you got from your uncle in the capital amount to two gold bars?'
'It does! I won't touch that gold, sir! In my old age I'll buy a small house and a boat with it, in my native village. But I have also got two silver pieces, and with those I'll try my luck!'
'See to it that you are here tomorrow morning before breakfast. If we make an early start, we'll cross this northern part of Chin-hwa district in four hours or so, and arrive in the city of Chin-hwa at noon. There I must make a courtesy call on my old friend Magistrate Lo. I can't pass through his district without going to see him. Then we'll ride on home to Pooyang.'
His stalwart lieutenant bowed and wished the judge a good night. Passing the attractive young maidservant who brought the tea tray, he gave her a broad wink.
'I'll have my tea outside on the veranda,' Judge Dee told her. 'You can serve my evening rice there too, as soon as it is ready.'
When the maid had disappeared he stepped out on the veranda. He lowered his tall frame in the bamboo chair he found standing there, next to a small round table. Stretching out his stiff legs and sipping the hot tea, he reflected with satisfaction that all had gone well during his two weeks'stay in the capital. He had been summoned there by the Metropolitan Court, to furnish more details about a case involving a Buddhist temple in his district, solved by him the year before. Now he was eager to get back to his post. It was a pity the floods had compelled him to make the detour via Chin-hwa district, but it meant a delay of only one day, after all. Although the frivolous atmosphere of Paradise Island was repugnant to him, he had been lucky to get this quiet suite in such a high-class hostel. Presently he would take a quick bath, eat a simple dinner, then have a good night's rest.
As he was going to lean back into his chair, he suddenly stiffened. He had a distinct feeling that someone was watching him. Turning round in his chair he quickly surveyed the sitting-room behind him. No one was there. He got up and walked over co the barred window of the Red Room. He looked inside but it was empty. Then he stepped up to the balustrade and scrutinized the dense shrubbery growing all along the veranda's raised base. As far as he could see nothing stirred among the dark shadows there. He noticed, however, an unpleasant smell as if of rotting leaves. He sat down again. It must have been his imagination.
Drawing his chair closer to the balustrade, he looked out over the park, where the coloured lights among the foliage offered a pleasing scene. But he could not recapture his former comfortable, relaxed mood. The still, hot air was growing oppressive; the empty park now seemed to exhale a threatening, hostile atmosphere.
A rustling among the wistaria leaves on his right made him look round with a start. He vaguely saw a girl standing at the end of the veranda, half-hidden by the low-hanging clusters of the blue wistaria flowers. Relieved, he turned his eyes to the park and said:
'Put the dinner tray down on this small table here, will you?'
He was answered by soft laughter. Astonished he looked round again. It was not the maid he had expected, but a tall girl dressed in a long robe of thin white gauze. Her glossy hair was hanging loose. He said contritely:
'Excuse me, I thought it was the maid.'
'Not a flattering mistake, to be sure!' she remarked in a pleasant, cultured voice. She stooped and came out from under the wistaria. He now noticed behind her a wicket in the balustrade, presumably the head of a flight of stairs, leading down to a path running by the hostel's side. As she came nearer it struck him that she was remarkably beautiful. Her oval face with the finely chiselled nose and the large expressive eyes was most attractive, and the wet gauze clinging to her bare body revealed its smooth whiteness and its sensuous curves with disconcerting clarity. Swinging the square toilet box she was carrying, she came to stand with her back to the balustrade, and looked the judge up and down with an insolent stare.
'You have made a mistake too,' Judge Dee said annoyed. 'This happens to be a private suite, you know!'
'Private suite? For me there exist no such on this island, my dear sir!'
'Who are you?'
'I am the Queen Flower of Paradise Island.'
'I see,' the judge said slowly. Smoothing down his beard he reflected that this was an awkward situation. He knew that in famous pleasure resorts a committee of prominent people selects every year the most beautiful and accomplished courtesan as Queen Flower. Such a woman occupies a high position in elegant society, she is the acknowledged leader of fashion, who sets the tone in the frivolous world of 'flowers and willows'. He must try to get rid of this scantily dressed woman without offending her. So he asked politely:
'To what fortunate circumstance is this person indebted for this unexpected honour?'
'A mere accident. I was on my way back from the large bathhouse, over on the other side of the park. I came up here because this veranda affords a short-cut to the path that leads alongside this hostel to my own pavilion, beyond the pine trees there on the left. I thought these apartments were empty, you know.'
The judge gave her a sharp look. 'I was under the impression that you had been observing me here for some time already,' he said.
'I am not in the habit of watching people. They watch me.' She spoke haughtily, yet she seemed suddenly worried. Casting a quick glance at the open door of the sitting-room, she asked with a frown: 'What gave you the preposterous idea that I had been spying on you?'
'Just a vague kind of feeling that I was being watched.'
She pulled the robe closer to her lithe body, naked under the transparent gauze.
'That's odd. I had the same feeling when I was about to come up here.' She paused, then took hold of herself and spoke in a bantering voice: 'I don't mind, I am accustomed to being followed about!'
She laughed, a clear, tinkling sound. Then she stopped abruptly, her face pale. The judge quickly turned his head. He also had heard the eery chuckle that had mixed with her laughter. It seemed to have come from the barred window of the bedroom. She swallowed and asked tensely:
'Who is that in the Red Room?'
'No one is there.'
She quickly darted her eyes from left to right, then turned round and gazed at the two-storied building in the park. The music had ceased, now the sound of applause came over from there, followed by peals of laughter. To break the awkward pause, Judge Dee said casually:
'The people over there seem to be having a good time.'
'That's the park restaurant. Downstairs they serve excellent food, upstairs is reserved for ... more intimate pleasures.'
'Quite. Well, I am delighted that a lucky chance afforded me the opportunity of meeting the most beautiful woman of Paradise Island. Now I regret all the more that, since I am engaged tonight, and have to continue my journey early tomorrow morning, I shan't be able to see more of you.'
She made no move to leave. She put the toilet box down on the floor, then folded her hands behind her head and leaned backwards, exposing her firm breasts with the taut nipples, her slender waist and rounded thighs. He couldn't avoid noticing that her entire body had been carefully depilated, as is the custom among courtesans. As he quickly looked away, she said calmly:
'You could hardly see more of me than you did just now, could you?' She enjoyed for a moment his embarrassed silence, then let her hands drop and continued complacently: 'I am in no particular hurry just now. Tonight's dinner is in my honour, and a devoted lover is coming to fetch me. He can wait. Tell me something about yourself. You have a rather solemn air, with that long beard. I take it that you are a metropolitan official or something of the sort?'
Excerpted from The Red Pavilion by Robert van Gulik. Copyright © 1961 Robert van Gulik. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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