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The Chinese Gold Murders

Robert Van Gulik

The Chinese Gold Murders

A Judge Dee Detective Storywith ten plates drawn by the author in Chinese style


Meeting and parting are constant in this inconstant world,

Where joy and sadness alternate like night and day;

Officials come and go, but justice and righteosness remain,

And unchangeable remains forever the imperial way.

THREE men wer silently sipping their wine on the top floor of the Pavilion of Joy and Sadness, overlooking the highway crossing outside the north gate of the imperial capital. Ever since people could remember, this old, three-storied restaurant, built on a pine-clad hillock, had been the traditional place where metropolitan officials were wont to see off their friends leaving for posts in the interior, and where they came again to bid them welcome when, their term of office completed, they returned to the capital. As indicated in the above-quoted poem engraved on its main gate, the pavilion derived its name from this double function.

The sky was overcast, the spring rain was coming down in a dreary drizzle that looked as if it would never cease. Two workmen in the cemetery down at the back of the hillock had sought shelter under an old pine tree, huddling close together.

The three friends had partaken of a simple noon meal; now the time of parting was drawing near. The difficult last moments had come, when one gropes in vain for the right words. All three were about thirty years old. Two wore the brocade caps of junior secretaries; the third, whom they were seeing off, the black cap of a district magistrate.

Secretary Liang put down his wine cup with a determined gesture. He said testily to the young magistrate, "It's the fact that it's so completely unnecessary that irks me most! You had the post of junior secretary in the Metropolitan Court of justice for the asking! Then you would have become a colleague of our friend Hou here, we could have continued our pleasant life together here in the capital, and you-"

Magistrate Dee had been tugging impatiently at his long, coalblack beard. Now he interrupted sharply.

"We have been over this many times already, and I-" He quickly caught himself up and went on with an apologetic smile, "I told you that I am sick and tired of studying criminal caseson paper!"

"There is no need to leave the capital for that," Secretary Liang remarked. "Aren't there enough interesting cases here? What about that secretary of the Board of Finance, Wang Yuan-te his name is, I think, the fellow who murdered his clerk and absconded with thirty gold bars from the Treasury? Our friend's uncle Hou Kwang, secretary-general of the Board, asks the Court every day for news, isn't it, Hou?"

The third man, who wore the insignia of a secretary of the Metropolitan Court, looked worried. He hesitated somewhat, then replied, "We haven't got a single clue yet to that scoundrel's whereabouts. It's an interesting case, Dee!"

"As you know," Magistrate Dee said indifferently, "that case has the personal attention of the president of the Court himself. All you and I have seen of it to date is a few routine documents, copies! Paper, and more paper!"

He reached for the pewter wine jug and refilled his cup. All were silent. After a pause Secretary Liang spoke.

"You could at least have chosen a better district than Peng-lai, that dismal place of mist and rain, far away on the seacoast! Don't you know the weird stories they tell about that region since olden times? They say that on stormy nights the dead rise there from their graves, and strange shapes flit about in the mist that blows in from the ocean. They even say that weretigers are still slinking about in the woods there. And to step in the shoes of a murdered man! Everyone in his senses would have refused that post if it were offered to him, but you even asked for it!"

The young magistrate had hardly listened to him. Now he said eagerly, "Think of it, a mysterious murder to solve, right after one has arrived at one's post! To have an opportunity right away for getting rid of dry-as-dust theorizing and paper work! At last I'll be dealing with men, my friends, real, living men!"

"Don't forget the dead man you'll have to deal with," Secretary Hou remarked dryly. "The investigator sent to Peng-lai reported that there was no clue to the murderer of the magistrate, nor to the criminal's motive. And I told you already that part of the file on that murder unaccountably disappeared from our Court's archives, didn't I?"

"The implications of that fact," Secretary Liang added quickly, "you know as well as we! It means that the magistrate's murder has ramifications here in the capital. Heaven knows what hornets' nest you are going to stir up, and what intrigues of high officials you'll get involved in! You have passed all the literary examinations with honors; here in the capital you have a great future before you. And you prefer to bury yourself in that lonely place, Peng-lai!"

"I advise you, Dee," the third young official said earnestly, "to reconsider your decision. There is still time; you could easily plead a sudden indisposition and ask for ten days' sick leave. In the meantime they'll assign another man to that post. Do listen to me, Dee. I am speaking to you as your friend!"

Magistrate Dee noticed the look of entreaty in his friend's eyes. He felt deeply touched. He had known Hou only for a year, but had formed a high opinion of his brilliant mind and his exceptional capacities. He emptied his wine cup and rose.

"I appreciate your solicitude as a further mark of your staunch friendship!" he said with a warm smile. "Both of you are perfectly right, it would be better for my career if I stayed on in the capital. But I owe it to myself to go on with this undertaking. The literary examinations Liang referred to just now I consider as routine; I feel that they don't count for me. And neither do I count the years of paper work I have had in the Metropolitan Archives here. I have yet to prove to myself that I am really capable of serving our illustrious emperor and our great people. The magistracy of Penglai is the real beginning of my career!"

"Or the end," Hou muttered under his breath. He rose also and walked to the window. The gravediggers had left their shelter and were starting their work. He grew pale and quickly glanced away. Turning round he said hoarsely, "The rain has stopped."

"Then I'd better go!" Magistrate Dee exclaimed.

Together the three friends descended the narrow, winding staircase.

In the courtyard below an elderly man stood waiting with two horses. The waiter filled the stirrup cup. The three friends emptied it in one draught, then there were the confused last messages and wishes. The magistrate swung himself into the saddle; the graybeard ascended the other horse. Magistrate Dee waved his whip in farewell, then the pair rode down the path that led to the highway.

As Secretary Liang and his friend Hou stood looking after them, the latter said with a worried look, "I didn't like to tell Dee, but this morning a man from Peng-lai told me about queer rumors there. They are saying that the ghost of the murdered magistrate has been seen walking in the tribunal."

The Chinese Gold Murders


Two days later, toward noon, Magistrate Dee and his assistant reached the border of Shantung Province. They had their noon meal in the military post, changed their horses, then went on eastward along the highway to Peng-lai. The road led through a thickly wooded, hilly country.

The magistrate wore a simple brown traveling dress. His official costume and a few personal belongings he carried in two capacious saddlebags. Since he had decided that his two wives and his children should follow him later, after he had settled down in Peng-lai, he could afford to travel light. Later his family would bring along his other possessions and his servants in tilt carts. His assistant, Hoong Liang, carried the magistrate's two most prized possessions, the famous sword Rain Dragon, an heirloom of the Dee family, and the old standard work on jurisprudence and detection, in the margins of which Dee's late father, the imperial councilor, had added copious notes in his precise handwriting.

Hoong Liang was an old retainer of the Dee family in Tai-yuan; he had looked after the magistrate when he was still a child. Later, when the magistrate had moved to the capital and set up his own household there, the loyal old servant had accompanied him. He had made himself very useful helping in supervising the household, at the same time acting as Dee's confidential secretary. And now he had insisted on following his master to Peng-lai, his first post in the provinces.

Letting his horse step in an easy gait, the magistrate turned round in his saddle and said, "If we keep this dry weather, Hoong, we should arrive tonight at the garrison city of Yen-chow. We can start from there early tomorrow morning, so that we reach Penglai in the afternoon."

Hoong nodded.

"We shall ask the commander at Yen-chow," he said, "to send an express messenger ahead, to apprise the tribunal of Peng-lai of our impending arrival, and-"

"We'll do nothing of the sort, Hoong!" the other interrupted quickly. "The senior scribe, who, after the murder of the magistrate there., was temporarily charged with the administration, knows that I have been appointed, and that's enough! I prefer to arrive unexpectedly. That's also why I refused the military escort the commander of the boundary post offered me."

As Hoong remained silent, his master continued.

"I carefully studied the file of the magistrate's murder, but as you know the most important part is missing, namely the private papers found in the dead man's library. The investigator brought them back with him to the capital, but they were stolen."

"Why," Hoong asked worriedly, "did the investigator stay only three days in Peng-lai? After all, the murder of an imperial magistrate is no small matter; he should have devoted more time to the case, and not have left there without at least having formulated a theory about how and why the crime was committed."

Magistrate Dee nodded eagerly.

"And that," he remarked, "is only one of the many curious aspects of the case! The investigator reported only that Magistrate Wang had been found poisoned in his library, that the poison had been identified as the powdered root of the snake tree, that it was not known how that poison had been administered, and that there were no clues to the criminal, nor to his motive. That was all!"

After a while he continued. "As soon as the papers of my appointment had been signed, I went to the Court to call on the investigator. But I found he had left already on a new assignment far down in the south. His secretary gave me the incomplete dossier. He said that the investigator had not discussed the case with him, that he had left no notes on it, and no oral instructions as to how he thought the case should be handled. So you see, Hoong, we'll have to start from scratch!"

The graybeard did not answer; he did not share his master's enthusiasm. They rode on in silence. Since some time now they had met no other travelers. They were traversing a wild stretch of country; high trees and thick undergrowth lined the road on both sides. After they had turned a bend, suddenly two men on horseback emerged from a narrow side path. They wore patched riding jackets, and their hair was bound up with dirty blue rags. While one aimed the arrow on his crossbow at the travelers, the other rode up to them, a drawn sword in his hand.

"Get down from your horse, official!" he shouted. "We'll accept yours and that of the old man as a courtesy of the road!"

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