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'Heavens!' she panted as she let the mangled head drop onto the marble floor. 'What a dead weight the old fool is! Here, help me to push him a little closer to the foot of the stairs.'
She considered the dead body for a while, wiping her wet face with the tip of her sleeve. The transparent gauze of her nightrobe showed every curve of her bare, white body. Looking up, she resumed:
'We'll leave him lying here, I think. Just as if he fell down the stairs. Missed a step while coming down, or got a stroke or an attack of dizziness. Let them take their choice. Anything is possible, at his age.'
Suddenly she shook her head. 'No, I'll put his head right beside this newel here. Then everybody will think that, after he had tumbled down the steps, this pointed newel bashed in his skull, you see. Yes, it's rather messy. You'd better do it. Thank you, that'll do fine. The blood shows very clearly on that white marble top, they can't miss it. Now you go up to his library, fetch the candle, and let it drop at the head of the stairs. Look sharp, it's devilish dark up there.'
She raised her head and anxiously followed him with her large eyes as he climbed the steep marble staircase. It marked the centre of the high, spacious hall, dimly lit by the spluttering candelabra on the wall-table by the moon-door.
It seemed a very long time to her before she saw the light of a candle through the latticework of the red-lacquered balustrade that ran all along the floor above. He let it drop on the marble flags. There was a brief flicker, then all became dark again up there.
'Come down quickly!' she called out impatiently. Stooping over the dead man, she took off one of his slippers and threw it up to the man who was descending the staircase. 'Catch! Well done. Now lay that slipper on a step about halfway up. Yes, that's exactly the right finishing touch!'CHAPTER 2
Judge Dee stared sombrely at the starless sky. The mass of low, threatening clouds seemed to weigh down on the black silhouettes of the curved roofs and crenelated ramparts all around. His broad shoulders sagged under his gold-embroidered robe as he leaned with both hands on the monumental balustrade of the marble terrace, lit by a single standard-lamp. No sound came up from the city below.
'The Emperor and the Court have left,' he spoke in a harsh voice. 'Now the Spirit of Death rules over the Imperial city. A city of fear.'
The tall man in battledress standing by his side listened silently, a worried expression on his handsome, regular face. The golden badge of two entwined dragons on the breast of his coat of mail indicated that he was a colonel of the guards. He took his right hand from the hilt of the broadsword that was hanging from his belt, and pushed the spiked helmet away from his sweating brow. Even here on the terrace, high up on the fourth storey of the palace, it was stifling hot.
The judge righted himself and folded his arms in his wide sleeves. His eyes still on the dark city, he resumed:
'In the daytime the only people one sees about are the hooded scavengers, dragging along the carts of the dead. And now, at night, there are only shadows. A city of shadows, died out.' He half turned to the other and went on: 'Yet, deep down below, Chiao Tai, in the slums and cellars of the old city, something is stirring, in the brooding darkness. Can't you feel the mounting miasma of death and decay? It seems to spread over the city like a suffocating shroud.'
Chiao Tai nodded slowly. 'Yes, the silence is uncanny, sir. People went about less, of course, even during the first week. But every day the statue of the Dragon King was carried in procession through the streets to make the rain come, and there was the din of the gongs and drums of the Buddhist Temple, sounded during the prayers to the Goddess of Mercy, every morning and every night. But now they have given up all that. To think that we haven't even heard the cry of a street hawker, these last two weeks.'
Judge Dee shook his head. He walked over to the armchair beside the large marble table, littered with files and document rolls. In the rear rose the heavy red pillars of the private office he had installed here, on the top storey of the Governor's palace. It was a point of vantage from which one could overlook the entire capital. As he sat down, the golden insignia of rank attached to the quivering wings of his high cap made a faint tinkling sound. He pulled at the stiff embroidered collar of his ceremonial robe and muttered: 'One can hardly breathe in this foul, stagnant air.' Then he looked up and asked wearily: 'Has Tao Gan worked out the reports of the city wardens tonight, Chiao Tail'
The colonel bent over the table and consulted a half-unrolled document. Frowning, he said:
'The number of deaths is still on the increase, sir. Especially men and grown-up children. The figures for women and infants are considerably lower.'
The judge raised his hands in a helpless gesture.
'We know next to nothing about how it spreads,' he said. 'Some think it is the polluted air, others blame the water, others again say that rats have something to do with it. It is already three weeks since I was appointed Emergency Governor of the Imperial Capital. And I haven't been able to do anything, anything at all.' He tugged angrily at his greying moustache. Then he resumed: 'The warden of the central market complained this afternoon that he can't keep the food distribution going properly. I told him that he'll have to manage, somehow or other. For there is no one to replace Merchant Mei. The few notables who haven't left do not have the confidence of the people. Merchant Mei's fatal accident is nothing short of a calamity, Chiao Tai.'
'Yes, Mr Mei had the rice distribution organized very well indeed, sir. He was on his feet from morning till night, despite his advanced age. And, being enormously rich, he often purchased for the needy cartloads of meat and vegetables, at blackmarket rates. Too bad that the old man should fall down the stairs, and that in his own house!'
'He must have got a seizure when about to descend,' the judge remarked, 'or perhaps a dizzy spell. He can't have missed a step, for I often noticed that his eyesight was still remarkably good. Through that unfortunate accident we lost a good man at the time we needed him most.' He took a sip from the tea Chiao Tai had poured for him and continued: 'That fashionable doctor, Lew his name is, I think, was present. He was the family physician, it seems. Find out where he lives, Chiao Tai, and tell him I want to see him. I had a very high opinion of Merchant Mei, and I would like to ask that doctor whether I can do anything for his widow.'
'Mei's death means that one of the three oldest families of the city has become extinct,' a dry voice spoke up behind them.
A thin, lanky man with a slight stoop had come out on the terrace, noiseless in his felt shoes. He wore the brown robe with the broad, gold-embroidered rims and collar of a Chief Secretary, and a high cap of black gauze. He had a long, sardonic face, adorned by a thin moustache and a wispy goatee. Pulling at the three long hairs that sprouted from a wart on his left cheek, he went on:
'Since Mei's two sons died young, and since his second marriage remained childless, the next in line is a distant cousin.'
'Have you managed to read up his file already, Tao Gan?' the judge asked, astonished. 'It became known only this morning that Mei had died last night!'
'I studied the dossier of the Mei family one month ago, sir,' the thin man replied placidly. 'I have been reading the files of all the prominent families, one every night, for the last six weeks or so.'
'I have seen those files in the archives of the Chancery,' Chiao Tai put in. 'Most of them fill several big document boxes! One of those will last you from midnight till morning, I wager!'
'They do, sometimes. But I sleep very little, anyway, and those files make soothing reading. Amusing too, sometimes.'
Judge Dee gave his thin lieutenant a curious look. This quiet man with his laconic wit had been in his service many years, but he kept discovering new traits in him. 'Now that the house of Mei has died out, only those of Yee and Hoo are left of the old aristocracy,' he said.
Tao Gan nodded. 'Between the three of them, they ruled this part of the Empire with an iron hand a hundred years ago, that was in the turbulent period of civil war and barbarian invasions that preceded the founding of our present dynasty, long before this city was chosen as the new Imperial capital.'
The judge smoothed his long beard.
'Curious set, that so-called "old world". They consider all who don't belong to their group as newcomers. Even our Emperor, I believe! I heard that among themselves they still use obsolete noble titles, and still speak a dialect of their own.'
'They purposely ignore the present, sir,' Tao Gan said. 'They keep themselves very much to themselves, and never appear at any official function. There's a lot of inbreeding among them, and a regrettable amount of promiscuity, among masters and servants—a remnant of the old, disorderly feudal life. In the midst of this colossal, bustling metropolis they live in a small world of their own, a world apart.'
'Merchant Mei was an exception,' Judge Dee said pensively. 'He took his civic duties very seriously indeed. As to Yee and Hoo, I haven't even met them I'
Chiao Tai, who had been listening quietly, now spoke up:
'The people downtown take Mei's death as a bad omen, sir. They firmly believe that the destinies of those old local families are bound up in some mysterious way with those of the city they used to rule. There's a jingle that passes from mouth to mouth that seems to predict that all three families will perish. The man in the street sets great store by it and says it means the end of this city. Pure nonsense, of course!'
'Those street jingles are quaint things,' the judge commented. 'No one knows where or when they originate. They suddenly spring up, and spread like wildfire. How does this particular street song go, Chiao Tai?'
'Oh, it's just a silly little rhyme, sir, of five lines:
One two three
Mei Hoo Yee
One lost his bed
The other his eye
The last his head
'Since Mr Mei died from a crushed skull, the clerks in the Chancery maintain that the last line refers to his accident.'
'In a time like this,' Judge Dee said worriedly, 'the people will give credit to the strangest rumours. What do your guardsmen report on the general situation?'
'It could be worse, sir,' Chiao Tai answered. 'There has been no plundering of foodstores, and no large-scale robbery or violence thus far. Ma Joong and I had been prepared for serious disturbances, for miscreants have ideal opportunities now: since many men are needed at the communal pyre seeing to the burning of the corpses, we have had to cut down the patrols of the nightwatch. And most of the wealthy families were in such a hurry to leave the city that they didn't take measures for having the empty premises properly guarded.'
Tao Gan pursed his lips. He said:
'Moreover, those who remained have sent most of their servants away, retaining only a skeleton staff. A thief's paradise, this city is! Yet no robbers seem to take advantage of the situation, fortunately.'
'Let's not be deceived by the present quiet, my friends!' the judge said gravely, 'Now the people are in the paralysing grip of fear, but this fear may change into a frenzied panic at any moment, And then violence and bloodshed will break out all over this city.'
'Brother Ma and I have set up a fairly good alarm-system, sir,' Chiao Tai said quickly. 'Our guardsmen occupy strategic points in the old and new city. Small posts, but the officers are all hand-picked men. We'll be able to nip disturbances in the bud, I trust. And, since martial law allows summary justice, we——'
Judge Dee had raised his hand,
'Listen!' he exclaimed. 'Are there still street singers about?'
A thin, eerie girl's voice came drifting up out of the street down below, accompanied by the strumming of a stringed instrument. They could faintly hear the words:
Please do not scold me,
Dear Lady Moon,
For closing my window
On your rays so soon.
But sweetest longing
It ended abruptly in a shrill scream of terror.
The judge gave Chiao Tai a peremptory sign. He hurriedly made for the stairs.CHAPTER 3
The girl clutched the guitar to her bare bosom, and screamed a second time. The black hood of the first man fell back, showing his red, bloated face, marked by large blue spots. Raising his long arms in the black, flapping sleeves he made to swoop down on her. Frantically she looked up and down the narrow, dimly lit street. Suddenly the second hooded figure grabbed the other's sleeve. A spare man clad in a costly robe of blue brocade had come round the corner. The two black shapes melted away in the shadows of the narrow side-alley.
She rushed up to the man in blue.
'They had the sickness! I saw his horrible face!'
He patted her back with his long, slim hand. There was an amused smile on his pale face, marked by a jet-black moustache and a short goatee. On his head he wore a square cap of black gauze.
'Don't be afraid, my dear,' he spoke in a pleasant, soothing voice. 'With me you are safe.'
She burst out in sobs. He took in her loose jacket of patched green brocade, hanging open in front, and her long, pleated skirt of faded black silk. Then he tucked the flat box of red pigskin he was carrying in his bosom and said:
'Calm yourself. I am a doctor, you know.'
The girl wiped her face and now for the first time gave him a good look. He seemed a nice gentleman, who carried himself well despite his narrow, slightly bent shoulders.
'I am sorry, sir. I thought I would be safe here, so near to the Governor's palace. I had already had such a terrible fright, tonight.... I was just getting my spirits back, and singing a little song, when those two horrible scavengers ...'
'You should be more careful,' the other said softly. 'That's a bad bruise there on your left breast.'
She quickly pulled her jacket close.
'It ... it's nothing,' she stammered.
'We shall put some ointment on it. I'll look after you, my dear. You are very young, aren't you? About sixteen, I guess?'
She nodded. 'Thank you very much, sir. Now I'd better go and ...'
He quickly stepped up to her and laid his hand on her shoulder. Bending close to her he said:
'You have a sweet little face, you know.' She drew back but he put his arm round her shoulders. 'No, no, you'll come with me, dearie. Trust Doctor Lew to treat you well! I live quite near, and I'll pay you in silver ... perhaps!'
She pushed him away.
'Leave me alone! I am not a streetwalker, I am a ...'
'Don't let us get prudish all of a sudden, my dear,' he said sharply.
She tried to shake him off. The front of her jacket came apart again. 'Let me go!' she cried out.
He took a firm hold on her collar with his left hand, and with the other squeezed her breast viciously. She uttered a piercing scream of pain.
Iron boots resounded on the cobblestones. A clipped voice shouted:
'Hey there! What's going on here?'
The doctor quickly let the girl go. After one brief glance at the huge man with the spiked helmet, she tightened her grip on the guitar, gathered her long skirt and scurried away. Through the slit skirt Chiao Tai got a glimpse of her bare thigh.
'Can't a doctor go quietly about his duties?' the spare man asked angrily. 'I thought those filthy creatures from the gutter were not allowed to roam the streets, officer!'
Chiao Tai looked over his shoulder at the two palace guards that had accompanied him and gave them a sign to go back to the gate, Then he hooked his thumbs in his swordbelt and gave the doctor an appraising look.
'Name please!' he ordered curtly.
'I am Doctor Lew, I live on the east side of this quarter. I ought to report that woman bothering me, but since I am in a hurry I ...'
'Doctor Lew you said, eh? Well, that's he. The Lord Chief Justice wants to see you.'
'A great honour, colonel. Would early tomorrow morning ...'
'You go up to his office right now, doctor.'
'I am on my way to see a patient, sir. He may have got the disease, and he is a very important man. He ...'
'They are dying like rats anyway, important or not. Follow me!'
Excerpted from The Willow Pattern by Robert H. van Gulik. Copyright © 1965 Robert H. van Gulik. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Posted June 9, 2011
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