A RICH SHIPOWNER REPORTS THE LOSS OF HIS BRIDE; THE JUDGE RECONSTRUCTS A MEETING OF TWO PERSONS
Judge Dee was up long before dawn. He had felt exhausted on his return from the temple, but he had slept very badly. Two times he had dreamt that the dead magistrate was standing in front of his couch. But when he had woken up, drenched with perspiration, the room had been empty. At last he had risen, lighted a candle and sat at his desk, looking through the district files till the glow of dawn had reddened the paper windows and the clerk had brought him his morning rice.
When the judge laid down his chopsticks Sergeant Hoong came in with a pot of hot tea. He reported that Ma Joong and Chiao Tai had gone out already to supervise the repairing of the watergate, and to investigate the bank of the canal where they had witnessed the attack in the mist. They would try to be back in time for the morning session of the tribunal. The headman of the constables had reported that Fan Choong had still not shown up. Finally, Tang's servant had come and said that his master had had an attack of fever during the night, but would come as soon as he felt somewhat better.
"I am not feeling too well myself," Judge Dee muttered. He greedily drank two cups of hot tea, then went on. "I wish I had my books here now. There exists quite an extensive literature on ghostly phenomena and on weretigers, but unfortunately I never paid special attention to it. A magistrate can't afford to neglect any branch of knowledge, Hoong! Well, what did Tang tell you yesterday about the program for the morning session?"
"There isn't much, your honor," the sergeant replied. "We must announce the verdict in a dispute between two farmers regarding the boundary of their fields. That is all." He gave the judge a dossier.
While glancing through it Judge Dee remarked, "Fortunately, that appears quite simple. 'Fang has done a good job locating in the land registry that old map where the original boundaries were clearly indicated. We'll close the session as soon as we have dealt with this case. There are many more pressing affairs!"
Judge Dee rose and Sergeant Hoong helped him to don his official robe of dark green brocade. As the judge was exchanging his house bonnet for the black judge's cap with the stiffened wings, three beats on the large gong resounded through the tribunal, announcing that the morning session was about to be opened.
The judge crossed the corridor in front of his office, passed through the door behind the unicorn screen, and ascended the dais. As he sat down in the large armchair behind the bench he noticed that the court hall was crowded. The people of Peng-lai were eager to see their new magistrate.
He quickly checked whether the court personnel were in their appointed places. On either side of the bench, two clerks were sitting at lower tables, making ready their ink stones and writing brushes for taking down the proceedings. Below the platform, in front of the bench, six constables stood in two rows of three, with their headman by their side. He slowly let his heavy whip swing to and fro.
Judge Dee rapped his gavel and declared the session open. After he had finished the roll call, he turned to the documents that Sergeant Hoong had spread out on the bench. He gave a sign to the headman. Two peasants were led before the bench and quickly knelt down. The judge explained to them the tribunal's decision on the boundary problem. The peasants knocked their foreheads on the floor to express their gratitude.
The judge was about to raise his gavel for closing the session, when a well-dressed man stepped forward. As he limped to the bench, supporting himself on a heavy bamboo stick, the judge noticed that he had a rather handsome, regular face, with a small black mustache and a well-trimmed, short beard. He seemed about forty years old.
He knelt down with some difficulty, then spoke in an agreeable, cultured voice.
"This person is the shipowner Koo Meng-pin. He deeply regrets that he has to trouble your honor on the very first session over which he presides in this tribunal. The fact is, however, that I am greatly worried by the prolonged absence of my wife, Mrs. Koo, n'ee Tsao, and wish to request the tribunal to initiate an investigation into her whereabouts."
He knocked his head three times to the floor.
Judge Dee suppressed a sigh. fie said, "Mr. Koo shall present this court with a full account of the occurrence so as to enable it to decide what action to take."
"The wedding took place ten days ago," Koo began, "but because of the sudden demise of your honor's predecessor we refrained as a matter of course from larger festivities. On the third day my bride went back home for the customary visit to her parents. Her father is Dr. Tsao Ho-hsien, he lives upcountry, outside the west gate. My wife was to leave there the day before yesterday, on the fourteenth, and was due back here in the afternoon of that same day. When she did not come, I presumed that she had decided to prolong her stay one day. But when yesterday afternoon she still had not come, I became worried and sent my business manager, Kim Sang, to Dr. Tsao's house, to make inquiries. Dr. Tsao informed him that my wife had indeed left his house on the fourteenth, after the noon meal, together with her younger brother, Tsao Min, who trotted behind her horse. He was to have accompanied her till the west city gate. The boy had come back late that afternoon. He had told his father that when they were near the highway, he had noticed a stork's nest in a tree by the roadside. He told his sister to ride ahead, he would soon catch up with her again after he had taken a few eggs from the nest. However, when he climbed the tree a rotten branch gave way, and he fell, spraining his ankle. He limped to the nearest farm, had his foot bandaged there and was sent home on the farmer's donkey. Since when they parted his sister had been seen about to enter the highway, he had assumed that she had ridden straight back to the city."
MENG-PIN BEFORE THE BENCH
Koo paused a moment, and wiped the perspiration from his brow. Then he resumed.
"On his way back to town my manager made inquiries in the military guardhouse, located at the crossing of the country road and the highway, and also at the farms and shops along the highway toward the city. But no one had seen a woman alone passing there on horseback that time of the day.
"Therefore this person, greatly fearing that something untoward has befallen his young bride, now respectfully begs your honor to institute a search for her without delay."
Taking a folded document from his sleeve and deferentially raising it above his head with two hands, he added, "I herewith submit a full description of my wife, the clothes she was wearing and the blazed horse she was riding."
The headman took the paper and handed it to judge Dec. He glanced it through, then asked, "Did your wife have any jewels or large sums of money on her person?"
"No, your honor," Koo replied. "My manager asked Dr. Tsao the same question, and he stated that she had only carried a basket with cakes which his wife had given her as a present for me."
Judge Dee nodded, then asked, "Could you think of any person who has a grudge against you and might have wanted to harm your wife?"
Koo Meng-pin shook his head emphatically. He said, "There may be persons who have a grudge against me, your honor-which merchant engaged in a highly competitive trade hasn't? But none of them would dare to commit such a dastardly crime!"
The judge slowly stroked his beard. He reflected that it would be an insult to discuss publicly the possibility that Mrs. Koo had eloped with somebody else. He would have to make inquiries about the woman's character and reputation. He spoke.
"This tribunal shall at once take all necessary steps. Tell your manager to repair to my office after the session, to report in detail about his inquiries, so as to avoid double work. I shall not fail to inform you as soon as I have any news."
Then the judge rapped his gavel and closed the session.
A clerk was waiting for him in his private office. He said, "Mr. Yee Pen, the shipowner, arrived and told me he wanted to see your honor privately for a few moments. I took him to the reception hall.
"Who is that fellow?" Judge Dee asked.
"Mr. Yee is a very wealthy man, your honor," the clerk replied. "He and Mr. Koo Meng-pin are the two largest shipowners in this district; their ships go all the way to Korea and Japan. Both of them own a wharf on the river front where they build and repair their ships."
"All right," Judge Dee said. "I am also expecting another visitor, but I can see Yee Pen right now." To Sergeant Hoong he added, "You'll receive Kim Sang, and make notes about what he reports on his inquiries about his master's lost wife. I'll join you here as soon as I have heard what Yee Pen has to say."
A tall, fat man stood waiting for the judge in the reception hall. He knelt as soon as he saw judge Dee ascending the stairs. "We are not in the court hall here, Mr. Yee," Judge Dee said affably as he sat down at the tea table. "Rise and take this chair opposite me:"
The fat man mumbled some confused excuses, then sat down gingerly on the edge of the chair. He had a fleshy, moon-shaped face with a thin mustache and a ragged ring beard. The judge did not like his small, crafty eyes.
Yee Pen sipped from his tea; he seemed at a loss how to begin. "In a few days," Judge Dee said, "I shall invite all the notables of Peng-lai for a reception here. Then I hope to have the advantage of a longer conversation with you, Mr. Yee. I regret that just now I am rather occupied. I would appreciate it if you would forsake the formalities, and state your business."
Yee quickly made a deep bow; then he spoke.
"As a shipowner, your honor, I naturally have to follow closely all that goes on on the water front. Now I feel it my duty to report to your honor that there are persistent rumors that large quantities of arms are being smuggled out through this city."
Judge Dee sat up straight.
"Arms?" he asked incredulously. "Where to?"
"Doubtless to Korea, your honor," Yee Pen answered. "I heard that the Koreans are chafing under the defeat we inflicted on them, and are planning to attack our garrisons leaguered there."
"Have you any idea," Judge Dee asked, "who are the despicable traitors engaging in that trade?"
Yee Pen shook his head. He replied, "Unfortunately I couldn't discover a single clue, your honor. I can only say that my own ships are certainly not used for that nefarious scheme! These are just rumors, but the commander of the fort must have heard them too. They say that all outgoing ships are being searched there very strictly these days."
"If you learn anything more, don't fail to let me know at once," the judge said. "By the way, have you perhaps any idea what could have happened to the wife of your colleague Koo Meng-pin?"
"No, your honor," Yee answered, "not the slightest. But Dr. Tsao will be sorry now that he didn't give his daughter to my son!" As the judge lifted his eyebrows, he added quickly, "I am one of Dr. Tsao's oldest friends, your honor, we are both adherents of a more rational philosophy, and opposed to Buddhist idolatry. Though the subject was never actually mentioned, I had always taken it for granted that Dr. Tsao's daughter would marry my eldest son. Then, three months ago when Koo's wife had died, Dr. Tsao suddenly announced that his daughter would be marrying him! Imagine, your honor, the girl is barely twenty! And Koo is a fervent Buddhist; they say he is going to offer a-"
"Quite," Judge Dee interrupted him. He was not interested in this family affair. He went on. "Last night two of my assistants met your business manager, Po Kai. He seems a remarkable fellow."
"I hope for all concerned," Yee Pen said with an indulgent smile, "that Po Kai was sober! The man is drunk half of the time, and the other half he is scribbling poetry."
"Why do you keep him then?" the judge asked, astonished. "Because," Yee Pen explained, "that drunken poet is a genius in financial matters! It is absolutely uncanny, your honor. The other day I had reserved the whole evening for going over my accounts with him. Well, I sat down with Po Kai and started to explain. But he just took the entire sheaf of documents from my hands, made a few notes while leafing them through, and gave them back. Then he took a writing brush and wrote out neatly my balance, without one mistake! The next day I told him to take a week off for drawing up an estimate for a war junk to be built for the fort. He had all the papers ready that same evening, your honor! Thus I could submit my estimate long before my friend and colleague Koo had his ready, and I got the order!" Yee Pen smiled srnugly, then concluded, "As far as I am concerned, the fellow may drink and sing as much as he likes. During the little time he works for me, he earns twenty times his salary. The only things I don't like about him are his interest in Buddhism and his friendship with Kim Sang, the business manager of my friend Koo. But Po Kai maintains that Buddhism answers his spiritual needs, and that he worms much information about Koo's affairs out of Kim Sang-and that of course comes in useful, sometimes!"
"Tell him," Judge Dee said, "to come and see me one of these days. I found in the tribunal a notebook with calculations I would like to have his opinion on."
Yee Pen gave the judge a quick look. He wanted to ask some-thing, but his host had already risen and he had to take his leave. When Judge Dee was about to cross the courtyard he was met by Ma Joong and Chiao Tai.
"That gap in the trellis is repaired, magistrate," Ma Joong reported. "On our way back we questioned a few servants of the large mansions near the second bridge. They said that sometimes after a party they carry large baskets with garbage on a litter to the canal, and dump it into the water. But we would have to make a house-to-house investigation to find out whether some such thing happened at the time Chiao Tai and I watched the incident there."
"That'll be the explanation!" Judge Dee said, relieved. "Come with me to my office now. Kim Sang will be waiting there." While they were walking to the office, the judge told the two men briefly about the disappearance of Mrs. Koo.
Hoong was talking to a good-looking young man about twentyfive years old. When he had presented him to the judge, the latter asked, "I presume by your name that you are of Korean descent?"
"Indeed, your honor," Kim Sang said respectfully. "I was born here in the Korean quarter. Since Mr. Koo employs many Korean sailors, he engaged me to supervise them and to act as interpreter."
Judge Dee nodded. He took Sergeant Hoong's notes of Kim Sang's story, and read them through carefully. Passing them on to Ma Joong and Chiao Tai he asked Hoong, "Wasn't Fan Choong last seen on the fourteenth, and also early in the afternoon?" "Yes, your honor," the sergeant replied, "Fan's tenant farmer stated that Fan left the farm after the noon meal, accompanied by his manservant Woo, and went away in a westerly direction." "You wrote here," the judge went on, "that Dr. Tsao's house is located in that same area. Let's get all this straight. Give me the district map."
When Hoong had unrolled the large pictorial map on the desk, judge Dee took his brush and drew a circle round a section of the area west of the city. Pointing to Dr. Tsao's house, he said, "Look here now. On the fourteenth, after the noon meal, Mrs. Koo leaves this house in a westerly direction. She turns right at the first crossing. Now where did her brother leave her, Kim?"
"When they were passing that small patch of wood where the two country roads join, sir," Kim Sang answered.
"Right," Judge Dee said. "Now the tenant farmer states that Fan Choong left about that same time, going in a westerly direction. Why didn't he go east, along that road that leads directly from his farm to the city?"
"On the map that looks indeed shorter, your honor," Kim Sang said, "but that road is very bad, it is just a track, and hardly usable after rain. Actually that short cut would have taken Fan longer than the detour by the highway."
"I see," Judge Dee said. Taking up his brush again, he made a mark on the stretch of road between the crossing of the country roads, and the highway.
"I don't believe in coincidences," he said. "I think we may assume that on this spot Mrs. Koo and Fan Choong met. Did they know each other, Kim?"
Kim Sang hesitated somewhat. Then he said, "Not that I know, your honor. But seeing that Fan's farm is not far from Dr. Tsao's house, I could imagine that Mrs. Koo, when she was still living with her parents, would have met Fan Choong."
"All right," Judge Dee said. "You gave us most useful information, Kim; we'll see what we can do. You may go now."
After Kim Sang had taken his leave, the judge looked significantly at his three assistants. Pursing his lips, he said, "If we remember what that innkeeper said about Fan, I think the conclusion is obvious."
"Koo's efforts didn't come up to the standard," Ma Joong remarked with a leer. But Sergeant Hoong looked doubtful. He said slowly, "If they eloped together, your honor, then why didn't the guards on the highway see them? There are always a couple of soldiers sitting around in front of such guard posts, and they have nothing to do but to drink tea and to stare at everybody who passes by. Moreover, they must have known Fan by sight, and they certainly would have noticed if he passed there together with a woman. And what about Fan's manservant?"
Chiao Tai had risen and now stood looking down at the map. He observed, "Whatever happened, it happened right in front of the deserted temple. And the innkeeper told some queer stories about that place! I notice that the particular stretch of road is invisible from the guard post, and also from Fan's farm, and from the house of Dr. Tsao. Neither can it be seen from the small farm where Mrs. Koo's brother had his foot bandaged. It would seem that Mrs. Koo, Fan Choong and his servant disappeared on that stretch of road into thin air!"
Judge Dee rose abruptly. He said, "It's no use theorizing before we have examined that area ourselves, and talked with Dr. Tsao and Fan's tenant farmer. The sky is clear for once; let's go out there now! After last night's experiences, I feel I could do with a nice ride through the country in broad daylight!"