A PHILOSOPHER PROPOUNDS HIS LOFTY VIEWS; JUDGE DEE EXPLAINS A COMPLICATED MURDER
Judge Dee saw to his amzement that Dr. Tsao lived in a three-storied tower, built on a pine-clad hillock. He left Hoong and Soo-niang down in the small gatehouse, and followed Dr. Tsao upstairs.
While ascending the narrow staircase Dr. Tsao explained that in olden times the building had been a watchtower which had played an important role in local warfare. His family had owned it for generations, but they had always lived in the city. After the death of his father, who had been a tea merchant, Dr. Tsao had sold the house in the city and moved to the tower. "When we are up in my librarv, sir," he concluded, "you'll understand why."
Arrived in the octagonal room on the top floor, Dr. Tsao indicated the view from the broad window with a sweeping gesture and said, "I need space for thinking, sir! From my library here I contemplate heaven and earth, and therefrom derive my inspiration."
Judge Dee made an appropriate remark. He noticed that from the window on the north side one had a good view of the deserted temple, but that the stretch of road in front of it was concealed by the trees at the crossing.
When they were seated at the large desk piled with documents, Dr. Tsao asked eagerly, "What do they say in the capital about my system, your honor?"
The Judge didn't think he had ever heard Dr. Tsao's name mentioned, but he replied politely, "I heard that your philosophy is considered quite original."
The doctor looked pleased.
"Those who call me a pioneer in the field of independent thought are probably right!" he said with satisfaction. He poured the judge a cup of tea from the large teapot on the desk.
"Do you have any idea," Judge Dee asked, "what could have happened to your daughter?"
Dr. Tsao looked annoyed. He carefully arranged his beard over his breast, then answered with some asperity, "That girl, your honor, has been doing nothing, but causing me bother! And I shouldn't be bothered; it affects seriously the serenity of mind I need for my work. I taught her myself to read and write, and what happened? She is always reading the wrang books. History she reads, I ask you, sir, history! Nothing but the sad records of former people who hadn't yet learned to think clearly. A waste of time!"
"Well," Judge Dee said cautiously, "often one can learn a lot from other people's errors."
"Pah!" Dr. Tsao said.
"May I ask," the judge said politely, "why you married her to Mr. Koo Meng-pin? I heard that you consider Buddhism as senseless idolatry-and to a certain degree I share that view. But 1\1r. Koo is a fervent Buddhist."
"Ha!" Dr. Tsao exclaimed, "that was all arranged behind my back, by the women of the two families. All women, sir, are fools!" Judge Dee thought that a rather sweeping statement, but decided to let it pass. He asked, "Did your daughter know Fan Choong?"
The doctor threw up his arms.
"How could I possibly know that, your honor! Perhaps she has seen him once or twice, for instance last month when that insolent yokel came here to speak to me about a boundary stone. Imagine sir, me, a philosopher, and… a boundary stone!"
"I suppose both have their uses," Judge Dee remarked dryly. When Dr. Tsao shot him a suspicious look, he went on quickly, "I see that the wall over there is covered with shelves, but that they are practically empty. What happened to all your books? You must have had an extensive collection."
"I had indeed," Dr. Tsao replied indifferently, "but the more I read the less I find. I read, yes, but only to let myself be diverted by men's folly. Every time I was through with an author, I sent his works to my cousin Tsao Fen, in the capital. My cousin, I regret to say, sir, sadly lacks originality. He is incapable of independent thought!"
The judge vaguely remembered now having met that Tsao Fen, at a dinner given by his friend Hou, the secretary of the Metropolitan Court. Tsao Fen was a charming old bibliophile, completely absorbed in his own studies. Judge Dee was going to stroke his beard but stayed his hand, annoyed, when he noticed that Dr. Tsao was already majestically caressing his own. Knitting his eyebrows, the doctor began.
"I shall now try to give you an outline, couched in simple language, and very brief, of course, of my philosophy. To begin with, I consider that the universe-"
Judge Dee quickly rose.
"I deeply regret," he said firmly, "that pressing affairs require my presence in the city. I hope soon to have an opportunity for continuing this conversation."
Dr. Tsao accompanied him downstairs. As the judge took leave of him he said, "During the noon session I'll hear some persons connected with your daughter's disappearance. You might be interested to attend."
"What about my work, sir?" Dr. Tsao asked reproachfully. "I really can't be bothered with attending sessions and so forth; it mars the serenity of my mind. Besides, Koo married her, didn't he? Her affairs are now his responsibilities. That is one of the cornerstones of my system, sir: let every man confine himself to what according to the heavenly command-"
"Good-by," Judge Dee said and jumped into the saddle.
He was riding down the hillock, followed by Hoong and Sooniang, when suddenly a good-looking youngster stepped out among the pine trees, and bowed deeply. The judge halted his horse. The boy asked eagerly, "Is there any news about my sister, sir?"
As Judge Dee gravely shook his head, the boy bit his lips. Then he blurted out, "It was all my fault! Please find her, sir! She was so good at riding and hunting; we were always together in the field. She was far too sensible to be a girl, she ought to have been a boy." He swallowed, then went on. "We two liked it here upcountry, but father is always talking about the city. But when he had lost his money-" He cast an anxious glance back at the house and added quickly, "But I shouldn't be bothering you, sir. Father'll be angry!"
"You aren't bothering me at all!" Judge Dee said quickly. He liked the bay's pleasant, open face. "It must be lonely for you now your sister is married."
The boy's face fell.
"Not more lonely than for her, sir. She told me she had no particular liking for that fellow Koo, but since she had to marry someone sometime anyway, and since father insisted so much, why not Mr. Koo? That's how she was, sir, a bit casual, but always so gay! But when she came back here the other day, she was not looking happy, and she wouldn't talk with me at all about her new life. What could have happened to her, sir?"
"I am doing all I can to find her," the judge said. Taking from his sleeve the handkerchief he had found in the hut on the farm, he asked, "Does this belong to your sister?"
"I really don't know, sir," the boy said with a smile. "All that women's stuff looks alike to me."
"Tell me," Judge Dee said, "did Fan Choong come here often?" "He came only once to the house," the youngster replied, "when he had to see father about something. But sometimes I meet him in the field. I like him, he is very strong, and a good archer. The other day he showed me how to make a real crossbow! I like him much better than that other man from the tribunal, that old fellow Tang, who is often on Fan's farm. He looks at you in such a queer way!"
"Well," the judge said, "I'll inform your father as soon as there is news about your sister. Good-by."
When he came back to the tribunal judge Dee ordered Sergeant Hoong to take the peasant girl to the guardhouse and look after her till the session would be opened.
Ma Joong and Chiao T'ai were waiting for him in his private office.
"We found in the barn that mat with the blood-stained clothes, and the sickle," Ma Joong reported. "The woman's clothes tally with Koo's description. I sent a constable to the White Cloud Temple; he'll tell them to send someone down here for identifying the dead baldpate we found. The coroner is now examining the bodies. That clodhopper Pei we put in our jail."
Judge Dee nodded. "Has Tang reported for duty?" he asked. "We sent a clerk to tell him about Fan," Chiao Tai replied. "He'll presently turn up here, I think. Did you find out much from that fat doctor, magistrate?"
The judge was pleasantly surprised. This was the first time that one of these two remarkable fellows had asked a question. They seemed to be getting interested in the work.
"Not much," he answered. "Only that Dr. Tsao is a pompous fool, and a liar to boot. It's quite possible that his daughter knew Fan Choong before her marriage and her brother thinks she had not been happy with Koo. Still the whole affair doesn't make sense to me. Perhaps the hearing of Pei and his daughter will bring to light some new facts.
"I'll now draw up a circular letter to all civil and military authorities of this province, asking for the arrest of that fellow Woo." "They'll catch him when he tries to sell those two horses," Ma Joong remarked. "The horse dealers are very well organized; they keep in close contact with each other and with the authorities. They also have a system for branding horses with special marks. To sell a stolen horse is no easy job for one who is new to it. At least that's what I have always heard!" he added virtuously.
Judge Dee smiled. He took up his brush and quickly wrote out the circular letter. He called a clerk and ordered him to have it copied out and despatched at once.
Then the gong sounded and Ma Joong quickly helped the judge to don his official robe.
The news of the discovery of Fan's body had spread already; the court hall was packed with curious spectators.
The judge filled in a form for the warden of the jail, and Pei Chiu was led before the bench. Judge Dee made him repeat his statement, and the scribe read it out. When Pei had agreed that it was correct and had impressed his thumbmark on it, the judge spoke.
"Even if you told the truth, Pei Chiu, you are still guilty of failure to report and trying to conceal a murder. You shall be detained pending my final decision. I shall now hear the coroner's report. 1p
Pei Chiu was led away, and Dr. Shen came to kneel before the bench.
"This person," he began, "has carefully examined the body of a man identified as Fan Choong, chief clerk of this tribunal. I found he was killed by one blow of a sharp weapon that cut through his throat. I also examined the body of a monk, identified by Hui-pen, prior of the White Cloud Temple, as the monk Tzu-hai, almoner of the same institution. The body did show no wounds, bruises or other signs of violence, neither was there any indication that poison had been administered. I am inclined to ascribe his demise to sudden heart failure."
Dr. Shen rose and placed his written report of the autopsy on the bench. The judge dismissed him, then announced that he would interrogate Miss Pei Soo-niang.
Sergeant Hoong led her before the bench. She had washed her face and combed her hair; now she was not devoid of a certain common beauty.
"Didn't I tell you out there that she was pretty?" Ma Joong whispered at Chiao Tai. "Duck 'em in the river and they are as good as any city wench, I always say!"
The girl was very nervous, but by patient questioning judge Dee made her tell again about Fan and the woman. Then he asked, "Had you ever met Mrs. Fan before?"
As the girl shook her head, he continued.
"How did you know then that the woman you served was indeed Mrs. Fan?"
"Well, they slept in the same bed, didn't they?" the girl replied. Sounds of laughter arose from the crowd, Judge Dee rapped his gavel on the bench. "Silence!" he shouted angrily.
The girl had bent her head, greatly embarrassed. Judge Dee's eye fell on the comb she had stuck in her hair. He took the one he had found in the bedroom of the farmhouse from his sleeve. It was an exact replica of the one Soo-niang was wearing.
"Look at this comb, Soo-niang he said, holding it up. "I found it near the farm. Is it yours?"
The girl's round face lit up in a broad smile.
"So he did really get one!" she said with satisfaction. Suddenly she looked frightened, and covered her mouth with her sleeve. "Who got it for you?" the judge asked gently.
Tears came in tile girl's eyes. She cried, "Father'll beat me!" "Look, Soo-niang," Judge Dee said, "you are in the tribunal here, you must answer my questions. Your father is in trouble; if you answer my questions truthfully, it may help him."
The girl firmly shook her head.
"This has got nothing to do with my father or with you," she said stubbornly. "I won't tell you."
"Speak up, or you'll get it!" the headman hissed at her, raising his whip. The girl screamed in terror, then burst out in heartbreaking sobs.
"Stay your hand!" the judge barked at the headman. Then he looked round unhappily at his assistants. Ma Joong gave him a questioning look, tapping on his breast. Judge Dee looked doubtful for a moment, then he nodded.
Ma Joong quickly stepped down from the dais, walked over to the girl and started to talk to her in an undertone. Soon the girl stopped sobbing; she nodded her head vigorously. Ma Joong whispered some more to her, then patted her encouragingly on her back, gave the judge a broad wink and resumed his position on the platform.
Soo-niang wiped her face off with her sleeve. Then she looked up at the judge and began.
"It was about one month ago, when we were working together on the field. Ah Kwang said I had good eves, and when we went to the barn to eat our gruel, he said I had good hair. Father was away at the market, so I went with Ah Kwang up to the loft. Then-" She paused, then added defiantly, "And then we were in the loft!"
"I see," Judge Dee said. "And who is that Ah Kwang?"
"Don't you know?" the girl asked, astonished. "Everybody knows him! He is the day worker who hires himself out to the farmers if there's much work in the fields."
"Did he ask you to marry him?" the judge asked.
"Two times he did," Soo-niang replied proudly. "But I said no, never! `I want a man with a piece of land of his own,' I told him. I also told him last week he couldn't corne to see me secretly any more in the night. A girl must think of her future, and I'll be twenty this coming autumn. Ah Kwang said he didn't mind me marrying, but that he'd cut my throat if I ever took another lover. People may say he's a thief and a vagabond, but he was very fond of me, I tell you!"
"Now what about this comb?" Judge Dee asked.
"He did have a way with him," Soo-niang said with a reminiscent smile. "When I saw him last time, he told me he would like to give me something really nice, to remember him by. I told him I wanted a comb exactly like the one I was wearing. He said he would find one for me, even if he had to go all the way to the market in the city for it!"
Judge Dee nodded.
"'That's all, Soo-niang," he said. "Have you got a place to stay here in town?"
"Auntie lives near the wharf," the girl said.
As she was led away by the sergeant, judge Dee asked the headman, "What do you know about that fellow Ah Kwang?" "That's a violent ruffian, your honor," the headman replied immediately. "Half a year ago he was given fifty blows with the heavy whip in this tribunal for knocking down an old peasant and robbing him, and we suspect that it was he who killed that shopkeeper two months ago during a brawl in the gambling den near the west gate. He has no fixed home, he sleeps in the wood or in the barn of the farm where he happens to be working."
The judge leaned back in his chair. He played idly for a while with the comb. Then he sat up again and spoke.
"This court, having inspected the scene of the crime and having heard the evidence brought forward, opines that Fan Choong and a woman dressed in Mrs. Koo's clothes were murdered in the night of the fourteenth of this month by the vagabond Ah Kwang."
An astonished murmur rose from the audience. judge Dee rapped his gavel.
"It is the contention of this court," he continued, "that Fan Choong's servant Woo discovered the murder first. He stole Fan's cash box, appropriated the two horses and fled. The tribunal shall take the necessary steps for the arrest of the criminals Ah Kwang and Woo.
"This tribunal shall continue its efforts to identify the woman who was with Fan, and to locate her body. It shall also try to trace the connection of the monk Tzu-hai with this case."
He rapped his gavel and closed the session.
Back in his private office the judge said to Ma Joong, "Better see that Pei's daughter gets safely to the house of her aunt. One lost woman is enough for this tribunal."
When Ma Joong had left, Sergeant Hoong said with a puzzled frown, "I didn't quite follow your honor's conclusions, just now during the session."
"Neither did we" Chiao Tai added.
Judge Dee emptied his teacup. Then he said, "When I had heard Pei Chin's story, I at once ruled out Woo as the murderer. If Woo had really planned to murder and rob his master, he would have done so on the may to or from Pien-foo, when he would have had better opportunities and less risk of being discovered. Second, Woo is a man from the city; he would have used a knife, certainly not a sickle, which is an extremely unwieldy weapon for a man unfamiliar with it. Third, only someone who had actually worked on that farm would have known where to find that sickle in the dark.
"Woo stole the cash box and the horses after he bad discovered the murder. He feared he would be implicated in that crime, and fear combined with greed and opportunity constitutes a powerful motive."
"That seems sound reasoning," Chiao Tai remarked. "But why should Ah Kwang murder Fan Choong?"
"That was a murder by mistake," the judge replied. "Ah Kwang had succeeded in buying that second comb he had promised Sooniang, and that night he was on his way to her. He probably thought that if he gave her the comb, she would grant him her favors once more. No doubt he and Soo-niang had agreed upon some signal whereby he could make his presence known to her. But while passing the house on his way to the barn, he saw a light in the bedroom. That was something unusual, so he pushed the window open and looked inside. Seeing in the semiobscurity the couple in the bed, he thought it was Soo-niang with a new lover. He is a violent rogue, so he went at once to the toolbox, took the sickle, jumped through the window and cut their throats. The comb dropped from his sleeve, I found it under the window. Whether he realized that he killed the wrong people before he fled, I don't know."
"He probably found it out soon enough," Chiao Tai remarked. "I know his kind! He won't have left before having searched the room for something to steal. Then he must have had a second look at his victims, and discovered that the woman wasn't Soo-niang."
"But who was that woman then?" Sergeant Hoong asked. "And what about that monk?"
Knitting his bushy eyebrows, the judge replied, "I confess that I haven't the slightest idea. The dress, the blazed horse, the time of disappearance, everything points straight to Mrs. Koo. But from what her father and her brother said about her, I think I got a fair idea of her personality. Her having a liaison with that rascal Fan Choong before and after her marriage to Koo simply isn't in character. Further, granted that Dr. Tsao is a formidable egoist, I still think that his supreme indifference to his daughter's fate isn't natural. I can't rid myself of the idea that the murdered woman wasn't Mrs. Koo, and that Dr. Tsao knows it."
"On the other hand," the sergeant observed, "the woman took care that Pei and his daughter shouldn't see her face. That suggests that she was indeed Mrs. Koo, who wouldn't have wanted to be recognized. Since her brother told us that he was often out in the field together with his sister, one may assume that Pei and his daughter knew her by sight."
"That is true," Judge Dee said with a sigh. "And since Pei saw her only when her face was covered with blood, he couldn't have recognized her after the murder-if she was indeed Mrs. Koo! Well, as regards that monk, after I have taken my noon meal I shall go to the White Cloud Temple myself and try to find out more about him. Tell the guards to make my official palanquin ready, sergeant. You, Chiao Tai, shall go out this afternoon together with Ma Joong, and try to find and arrest that fellow Ah Kwang. Yesterday you two offered to arrest a dangerous criminal for me. This is your chance! And while you are having a look around, you might as well go to that deserted temple and search it. It is not impossible that the dead woman was buried there; the man who stole her corpse can't have gone far."
"We'll get Ah Kwang for you, magistrate!" Chiao Tai said with a confident smile. He rose and took his leave.
A clerk came in carrying the tray with judge Dee's noon rice. He was just taking up his chopsticks when Chiao Tai suddenly came back.
"Just now when I passed by the jail I happened to look into the cell where we temporarily deposited the two dead bodies. Tang was sitting by the side of Fan Choong's corpse, holding the dead man's hand in his own. Tears were streaming down his face. I think that's what the innkeeper meant when he said that Tang is different. It's a pathetic sight, magistrate; you'd better not go there."
He left the office.