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TWO STALWARTS HAVE A GRATIS MEAL IN A RESTAURANT; THEY WATCH A STRANGE PERFORMANCE ON THE WATER FRONT


"THE first thing to do," Ma Joong said when he left the tribunal together with Chiao Tai, "is to get something under our belts. Drilling those lazy bastards made me hungry."

"And thirsty!" Chiao Tai added.

They entered the first restaurant they saw, a small place on the corner southwest of the tribunal. It bore the lofty name of Nine Flowers Orchard. They were met by the din of confused voices; it was very crowded. They found with difficulty an empty place near the high counter in the back, behind which a one-armed man stood stirring an enormous kettle of noodles.

The two friends surveyed the crowd. They were mostly small shopkeepers, taking a quick snack before they would have to hurry back to meet the evening rush of customers. They were gobbling their noodles with relish, stopping only to pass the pewter wine jugs around.

Chiao Tai grabbed the waiter's sleeve when he hurried past them with a tray loaded with noodle bowls.

"Four of those!" he said. "And two large jugs!"

"Later!" the waiter snapped. "Can't you see I am busy?"

Chiao Tai burst out in a string of picturesque curses. The onearmed man looked up and stared intently at him. He laid down the long bamboo ladle and came round the counter, his sweatcovered face creased in a broad grin.

"There was but one over there who could curse like that!" lie exclaimed. "What brought you here, sir?"

"Forget the sir," Chiao Tai said gruffly. "I got into trouble when we were moved up north, and gave up my rank and my name. I am called Chiao Tai now. Can't you get us a bit of food?"

"One moment, sir," the man said eagerly. He disappeared into the kitchen, and presently came back followed by a fat woman, who carried a tray with two large wine jugs and a platter heaped with salted fish and vegetables.

"That's better!" Chiao Tai said contentedly. "Sit down, soldier, let your old woman do the work for once!"

The owner drew up a stool, and his wife took his place behind the counter. While the two friends started eating and drinking, the owner told them that he was a native of Peng-lai. After he had been discharged from the expeditionary force in Korea, he had bought the restaurant with his savings and wasn't doing too badly. Looking at the brown robes of the two men, he asked in a low voice, "Why do you work in that tribunal?"

"For the same reason you are stirring noodles," Chiao Tai replied. "To earn a living."

The one-armed man looked left and right. Then he whispered, "Queer things are happening there! Don't you know that a fortnight ago they throttled the magistrate and chopped up his body into small pieces?"

"I thought he was poisoned!" Ma Joong remarked, taking a long draught from his wine cup.

"That's what they say!" the owner said. "A kettle of mincemeat, that was all that was left of that magistrate! Believe me, the people there are no good."

"The present magistrate is a fine fellow," Chiao Tai remarked. "I don't know about him," the man said stubbornly, "but Tang and Fan, those two are no good."

"What's wrong with the old dodderer?" Chiao Tai asked, astonished. "He looks to me as if he couldn't hurt a fly."

"Leave him alone!" the owner said darkly. "He is… different, you know. Besides, there's something else very wrong with Tang." "What something?" Ma Joong asked.

"There's more happening in this district than meets the eye, I tell you," the one-armed man said. "I am a native, I should know! Since olden times there have been some weird people here. My old father used to tell us stories-"

His voice trailed off. He shook his head sadly, then quickly emptied the wine cup which Chiao Tai pushed over to him.

Ma Joong shrugged his shoulders.

"We'll find out for ourselves," he remarked, "that's half of the fun. As to that fellow Fan you mentioned, we'll worry about him afterward. The guards told me he's kind of lost, just now."

"I hope he'll stay that way!" the one-armed man said with feeling. "That bully takes money from all and sundry, he is even more greedy than the headman there. And what's worse, he can't leave the women alone. He is a good-looking rascal, heaven knows what mischief he has made already! But he is thick as thieves with Tang, and that fellow always manages to shield him."

"Well," Chiao Tai put in, "Fan's palmy days are over; he'll have to work under me and my friend here now. He must have collected plenty of bribes though. I hear he owns a small farm west of the city.

"That he inherited last year from a distant relative," the owner said. "It isn't much good, it's a lonely small place, and near the deserted temple. Well, if it's there he got lost, it's they who must have got him."

"Can't you talk plain Chinese for once?" Ma Joong exclaimed impatiently. "Who is `they'?"

The one-armed man shouted to the waiter. When he had placed two enormous bowls with noodles on the table, the owner spoke, softly.

"To the west of Fan's farm, where the country road joins the highway, there stands an old temple. Nine years ago four monks lived there; they belonged to the White Cloud Temple, outside the east gate. One morning all four were found dead, their throats slit from ear to ear! They were not replaced, the temple has been standing empty ever since. But the ghosts of those four men are still haunting the place. Farmers have seen lights there at night, and everybody gives it a wide berth. Only last week a cousin of mine who passed by there late in the night saw in the moonlight a headless monk slinking about. He saw clearly that he was carrying his severed head under his arm."

"August heaven!" Chiao T'ai shouted. "Stop those tales of horror, will you? How can I eat my noodles when they are standing on end in the bowl?"

Ma Joong guffawed. They started on the noodles in earnest. When they had finished their bowls to the last drop, Chiao Tai rose and groped in his sleeve. The owner quickly put his hand on his arm and exclaimed, "Never, sir! This restaurant and all in it is yours. If it hadn't been for you, those Korean lancers would-"

"All right!" Chiao Tai interrupted him. "Thanks for your hospitality. But if you want to see us back here, next time we'll pay cash!"

The one-armed man protested energetically, but Chiao Tai clapped his shoulder and they left.

Outside Chiao Tai said to Ma Joong, "Now that we have eaten our fill, brother, we had better do some work! Now how does one get an impression of a town?"

Ma Joong looked at the thick fog. Scratching his head, he replied. "I suppose it's done by sheer footwork, brother!"

They walked along, keeping close to the lighted shop fronts. Despite the mist there were a good many people about. The two friends looked idly at the local goods on display, and here and there inquired about prices. Arrived at the gate of the Temple of the War God, they went inside, bought for a few coppers a bunch of incense sticks and burned them before the altar, praying for the souls of the soldiers fallen in battle.

When they were strolling south again, Ma Joong asked, "Do you know why we are all the time fighting beyond our frontiers against those barbarians there? Why not let the bastards stew in their own grease?"

"You don't know a thing about politics, brother," Chiao T'ai replied condescendingly. "It is our duty to deliver them from their barbarism, and to teach them our culture!"

"Well," Ma Joong remarked, "those Tartars also know a thing or two. Do you know why they don't insist on their girls being virgins when they are married? Because, my friend, they make allowances for the fact that those Tartar girls, from childhood, are always riding on horseback! But don't let our own girls come to know about that!"

"I wish you would stop your prattle!" Chiao Tai exclaimed, irritated. "Now we have lost our way."

They found themselves in what seemed to be a residential quarter. The street was paved with smooth flagstones, and on either side they vaguely saw the high walls of large mansions. It was very still, the mist deadened all sound.

"'That there in front of us is a bridge, isn't it?" Ma Joong said. "That must be the canal that crosses the southern half of the city. If we just follow that canal in an easterly direction, we'll probably get to a shopping street again, sooner or later."

They crossed the bridge, and started to walk along the waterside. Suddenly Ma Joong laid his hand on Chiao Tai's arm. He pointed silently to the opposite bank, faintly visible through the mist.

Chiao Tai strained his eyes. A group of men seemed to be moving along there, carrying on their shoulders a small, open litter. In the gray moonlight that filtered through the mist he saw on the litter the figure of a bareheaded man, sitting cross-legged with his arms folded on his breast. He seemed all swathed up in white. "Who's that queer fellow?" Chiao Tai asked, amazed.

"Heaven knows," Ma Joong growled. "Look, they are halting." A gust of wind blew a wisp of mist away. They saw that the men had put the litter down. Suddenly two men standing behind the seated man lifted large clubs, and let them descend on his head and shoulders. Then the mist thickened again. They heard a splash. Ma Joong cursed.

"To the bridge!" he hissed at Chiao Tai.

They turned round and ran back along the canal. But they couldn't see well, and the ground was slippery; it took them quite some time to get back to the bridge. They quickly crossed it, then cautiously made their way along the opposite bank. But everything seemed deserted. After they had walked up and down for some time along the stretch where they thought they had seen the attack, Ma Joong suddenly stooped and felt the ground with his fingers.

"There are deep marks here," he said. "This must be the place where they dumped the poor bastard into the canal."

The mist was lifting a little now, they could see a patch of muddy water several feet below them. Ma Joong stripped naked. Having given his robes to Chiao Tai, he stepped out of his boots and lowered himself into the water. It came up to his midriff.

"It stinks!" he remarked sourly. "But I see no dead body."

He waded out further. When he came back to the bank he felt with his feet in the thick layer of dirt and mud on the bottom of the canal

"Nothing doing," he muttered disgustedly. "We must have mistaken the place. There's nothing here but a few large lumps of clay or stone, and caked waste paper. What a mess! Pull me up."

It started raining.

"That's the only thing we were lacking!" Chiao Tai said with a curse. Noticing that there was a porch over the back door of the dark, silent mansion behind him, Chiao Tai took shelter there with Ma Joong's clothes and boots. Ma Joong remained standing in the rain till it had washed his body clean again. Then he joined Chiao Tai under the porch and rubbed himself dry with his neckcloth. When the rain had stopped, they set out again in an easterly direction, along the canal. The mist had grown thinner. They saw on their left a long row of the high back walls of large houses.

"We didn't do too well, brother," Chiao Tai said ruefully. "More experienced officers would doubtless have got those fellows."

"Even experienced officers can't fly over a canal!" Ma Joong replied sourly. "What a weird sight was that swathed-up fellow. And that right on top of those cheerful tales your one-armed friend had been telling. Let's find a place where we can have another drink."

They walked on till they saw the blurred light of a colored lantern through the dripping mist. It marked the side entrance of a large restaurant. They went round to the front. Entering the beautifully furnished waiting room downstairs, they scowled at a supercilious waiter who looked critically at their wet robes, and went up the broad staircase. As they pushed upen the elaborately carved double doors they saw a spacious dining room, alive with the hubbub of voices.


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