JUDGE DEE GOES TO VISIT THE SCENE OF THE CRIME; HE STUDIES THE SECRET OF THE COPPER TEA STOVE
"WHAT door is that?" Judge Dee barked.
"I think maybe it's the front door of the private residence, your honor," Tang replied in a faltering voice. "It doesn't shut properly."
"Have it mended tomorrow!" the judge ordered brusquely. He remained standing there, in grim silence. Slowly caressing his side whiskers, he remembered the queer vacant stare of the apparition, and how quickly and noiselessly it had disappeared.
Then he walked round his desk and sat down in his armchair. Sergeant Hoong looked at him silently, his eyes wide with horror. With an effort judge Dee composed himself. He studied Tang's gray face for a moment, then asked, "Have you seen that apparition too?"
"Three days ago, your honor," he replied, "and in this very office. Late at night I came here to fetch a document I needed, and he was standing there, by the side of his desk, his back turned to me."
"What happened then?" the judge asked tensely.
"I uttered a cry, your honor, and let the candle drop. I ran outside and called the guards. When we came back, the room was empty." Tang passed his hand over his eyes, then added, "He looked exactly as we found him, your honor, that morning in his library. Then he was wearing his gray house robe with the black sash. His cap had dropped from his head when he fell on the floor… dead."
As Judge Dee and Sergeant Hoong remained silent, he went on. "I am convinced that the investigator must have seen him too, your honor! That is why he looked so ill that last morning, and why he left so abruptly."
The judge tugged at his mustache. After a while he said gravely, "It would be foolish to deny the existence of supernatural phenomena. We must never forget that our Master Confucius himself was very noncommittal when his disciples questioned him on those things. On the other hand, I am inclined to begin by seeking for a rational explanation."
Hoong slowly shook his head.
"There's none, your honor," he remarked. "The only explanation is that the dead magistrate can't find rest because his murder is not yet avenged. His body is lying in the Buddhist temple, and they say that it is easy for a dead man to manifest himself to the living in the proximity of his corpse, and when decomposition has not yet advanced too far."
Judge Dee rose abruptly.
"I shall give this problem serious thought," he said. "Now I'll go back to the house and examine the library."
"You can't risk meeting the ghost again, sir!" Sergeant Hoong exclaimed, aghast.
"Why not?" Judge Dee asked. "The dead man's purpose is to have his murder avenged. He must know that I have the same desire. Why then should he want to harm me? When you are through here, sergeant, come and join me in the library. You can take two guards with lampions along if you want."
Ignoring their protests, judge Dee left the office. This time he first walked over to the chancery and fetched there a large lantern of oiled paper.
When he was again in the deserted house he entered the side passage where the apparition had disappeared. On either side was a door. Opening the one on his right he saw a spacious room, the floor covered with larger and smaller bundles and boxes, piled up in confusion. Placing the lantern on the floor, judge Dee felt the bundles and looked among the piled-up boxes. A grotesque shadow in the corner startled him. Then he realized it was his own. There was nothing there but the belongings of the dead man.
Shaking his head, the judge entered the room opposite. It was empty but for a few large pieces of furniture, packed up in straw mats.
The passage ended in a massive door, securely locked and bolted. Deep in thought the judge walked back to the corridor.
The door at its end was elaborately carved with motifs of clouds and dragons, but its beauty was marred by a few boards nailed over the upper part. There the constables had smashed the panel in order to open the door.
Judge Dee tore off the strip of paper with the seal of the tribunal, and opened the door. Holding his lantern high he surveyed the small, square room, simply but elegantly furnished. On the left was a high, narrow window; directly in front of it stood a heavy ebony cupboard, bearing a large copper tea stove. On the stove stood a round pewter pan for boiling the tea water. Next to the stove he saw a small teapot of exquisite blue and white porcelain. The rest of the wall was taken up entirely by bookshelves, as was the wall opposite. The back wall had a low, broad window; its paper panes were scrupulously clean. In front of the window stood an antique desk of rosewood, with three drawers on either end, and a comfortable armchair, also of rosewood, covered with a red satin cushion. The desk was empty but for two copper candlesticks.
The judge stepped inside and examined the dark stain on the reed mats, between the tea cupboard and the desk. Presumably that stain was caused by the tea spilling from the magistrate's cup when he fell down. Probably he had put the water on the fire, then had sat down at his desk. When he had heard the water boil, he had gone to the tea stove and poured the water into the teapot. Standing there he had filled his cup, and taken a sip from it. Then the poison had taken its effect.
Seeing a key stuck in the elaborate lock of the cupboard, the judge opened it and looked with admiration at the choice collection of utensils of the tea cult that were stacked on the two shelves. There was not a speck of dust; evidently the investigator and his assistants had been over everything very thoroughly.
He walked over to the desk. The drawers were empty. There the investigator had found the dead man's private papers. The judge heaved a deep sigh. It was a great pity that he had not seen the room directly after the murder had been discovered.
Turning to the shelves, he ran his finger idly over the tops of the books. They were covered with a thick layer of dust. Judge Dee smiled contentedly. Here was at least something new to examine; the investigator and his men had apparently ignored the books. Surveying the packed shelves, the judge decided to wait with his examination till Hoong would have come.
He turned the armchair round sa that it faced the door, then sat down. Folding his arms in his wide sleeves, he tried to imagine what kind of man the murderer could have been. To kill an imperial official is a crime against the state, for which the law prescribes the death penalty in one of its most severe forms, such as the hideous "lingering death" or being quartered alive. The murderer must have had a very strong motive indeed. And how had he poisoned the tea? It had to be the tea water in the pan, for the unused tea leaves had been tested and found harmless. The only other solution he could think of was that the murderer had sent or given the magistrate a small quantity of tea leaves, just enough for making tea once, and that those had contained the poison.
Judge Dee sighed again. He thought of the apparition he had seen. It was the first time in his life he had actually seen such a ghostly phenomenon and he stil'. wasn't quite convinced that it had been real. It could have been a hoax of some kind. But then the investigator and Tang had also seen it. Who would dare to take the risk to pose as a ghost, inside the tribunal itself? And for what reason? He thought that after all it must indeed have been the ghost of the dead magistrate. Reclining his head on the back rest, the judge closed his eyes and tried to visualize the face of the apparition as he had seen it. Was it not possible that the dead man would give him some token to assist him in solving the riddle?
He quickly opened his eyes, but the room was as still and empty as before. The judge remained a few moments as he was, idly surveying the red-lacquered ceiling, crossed by four heavy roof beams. He noticed a discolored spot on the ceiling and a few dusty cobwebs in the corner where the tea cupboard stood. Evidently the dead magistrate had not been as fussy about cleanliness as his senior scribe.
Then Sergeant Hoong came in, followed by two guards carrying large candlesticks. Judge Dee ordered them to place the candles on the desk, then dismissed them.
"The only things left for us here, sergeant," he said, "are those books and document rolls on the shelves. It's quite a lot, but if you hand me a pile and replace it when I am through, it shouldn't take too long!"
Hoong nodded cheerfully and took a pile of books from the nearest shelf. As he rubbed off the dust with his sleeve, the judge turned his chair round again so that it faced the desk, and he started to look through the books the. sergeant put in front of him.
JUDGE DEE INSPECTS THE LIBRARY
More than two hours had passed when Hoong replaced the last pile on the shelves. Judge Dee leaned back in his chair and took a folding fan from his sleeve. Fanning himself vigorously, he said with a contented smile, "Well, Hoong, I have now a fairly clear picture of the murdered man's personality. I have glanced through the volumes with his own poetry it is written in exquisite style but rather shallow in content. Love poems predominate, most of them dedicated to famous courtesans in the capital or other places where Magistrate Wang served."
"Tang made some veiled remarks Just now, your honor," Hoong put in, "to the effect that the magistrate was a man of rather slack morals. He often even invited prostitutes to his house, and had them stay there overnight."
Judge Dee nodded, "That brocade folder cou gave me a few moments ago," he said, "contained nothing but erotic drawings. Further, lie bad a few score books on wine, and the way it is made in various parts of the empire, and on cooking.On the other hand, he had built up a fine collection of the great ancient poets, every volume dog-eared and with his own notes and comments written in on nearly every page. The same goes for his comprehensive collection of works on Buddhism and on Taoist mysticism. But his edition of the complete Confucian classics is in as virg'inal a state as when he purchased it! I further noticed that the sciences are well represented: most of the standard works on medicine and alchemy are there, also a few rare old treatises an riddles, conundrums and mechan-ical devices. Books on history, statecraft, administration and mathematics arc conspicuous by their absence."
Turning his chair round, the judge continued.
"I conclude that Magistrate Wang was a poet with a keen sense of beauty, and also a philosopher deeply interested in mysticism. And at the same time he was a sensual man, much attached to all earthly pleasures-a not unusual combination, I believe. He was completely devoid of ambition; he liked the post of magistrate in a quiet district far from the capital, where he was his own master and where he could arrange his life as he liked. That is why he didn't want to be promoted-I belive that Peng-lai was already his ninth post as magistrate! But he was a very intelligent man of an inquisitive mind-hence his interest in riddles, conundrums and mechanical devices-and that, together with his long practical experience, made him a fairly satisfactory magistrate here, although I don't suppose he was very devoted to his duties. He cared little for family ties; that is why he didn't remarry after his first and second ladies had died, and why he was content with ephemeral liaisons with courtesans and prostitutes. He himself summed up his own personality rather aptly in the name he bestowed on his library."
Judge Dee pointed with his fan at the inscribed board that hung over the door. Hoong couldn't help smiling when he read, "Hermitage of the Vagrant Weed."
"However," the judge resumed, "I found one very striking inconsistency." Tapping the oblong notebook that he had kept apart, he asked, "Where did you find this, sergeant?"
"It had fallen behind the books on this lower shelf," Hoong replied, pointing.
"In this notebook," Judge Dee said, "the magistrate copied out with his own hand long lists of dates and figures, and added pages of complicated calculations. There is not one word of explanation. But Mr. Wang seems to me the last man to be interested in figures. I suppose he left all financial and statistical work to Tang and the clerks, didn't he?"
Sergeant Hoong nodded emphatically.
"So Tang gave me to understand just now," he replied.
Judge Dee leafed through the notebook, slowly shaking his head. He said pensively, "He spent an enormous amount of time and labor on these notes-small mistakes are carefully blotted out and corrected, etc. The only clue is the dates, the earliest mentioned is exactly two months ago."
He rose and put the notebook in his sleeve.
"In any case," he said, "I'll study this at leisure, though it is of course by no means certain that it concerns affairs that are connected with his murder. But inconsistencies are always worth special attention. Anyway we have now a good picture of the victim, and that's, according to our handbooks on detection, the first step toward discovering the murderer!"