THE JUDGE VISITS A BUDDHIST ABBOT; HE HAS A DINNER ON THE WATER FRONT
JUDGE Dee remained silent all the way to the east gate. Only when they were being carried across the creek over the Rainbow Bridge did he comment to Hoong on the beautiful view presented by the White Cloud Temple ahead. Its white marble gates and the blue tiled roofs stood out against the green mountain slope.
They were carried up the broad marble stairs, and the bearers deposited the palanquin in the spacious courtyard, surrounded by a broad open corridor. Judge Dee gave his large red visiting card to the elderly monk who came to meet him. "His holiness is just finishing his afternoon devotion," he said.
He led them through three other courts, each on a higher level against the mountain slope, and connected with each other by beautifully carved marble staircases.
At the back of the fourth court there was a flight of steep steps. On top judge Dee saw a long, narrow terrace, hewn directly into the moss-covered rock. He heard the sounds of running water.
"Is there a spring here?" he asked.
"Indeed, your honor," the monk answered. "It sprang from the rock below here four hundred years ago, when the founding saint discovered the sacred statue of the Lord Maitreya on this site. The statue is enshrined in the chapel there on the other side of the cleft."
The judge saw now that between the terrace and the high rock wall there was a cleft of about five foot broad. A narrow bridge consisting of three transverse wooden boards led over it to a large, dark cave.
Judge Dee stepped on the bridge and looked down into the deep cleft. Some thirty feet below him a swift stream gushed over pointed stones. A delightful cool air came up from the cleft.
Inside the case on the other side of the bridge he saw a golden trellis, with a red silk curtain hanging behind it. That apparently concealed the holiest of the holy, the chapel of the statue of Maitreya.
"The abbot's quarters are at the end of the terrace," the old monk said. He took them to a small building with an elegantly curved roof, nestling in the shadow of century-old trees. Soon he came out again, and bade the judge enter. Sergeant Hoong sat down on the cool stone bench outside.
A magnificent couch of carved ebony covered with red silk cushions took up the entire back part of the room. In its middle a small, rotund man was sitting cross-legged, huddled in a wide robe of stiff gold brocade. He bowed his round, closely-shaven head, then motioned the judge to sit down on a large carved armchair, in front of the couch. The abbot turned round and placed the visiting card of the judge respectfully on the small altar in the niche behind the couch. The rest of the walls were covered by heavy silk hangings, embroidered with scenes from the life of the Buddha. The room was pervaded by the heavy smell of some outlandish incense.
The old monk placed a small tea table of carved rosewood by the side of judge Dee's chair, and poured him a cup of fragrant tea. The abbot waited till the judge had taken a sip, then he said in a surprisingly strong, resonant voice, "This ignorant monk had intended to go to the tribunal tomorrow to pay his respects. It greatly distresses me that now your excellency has come to see me first. This monk does not deserve that signal honor."
He looked straight at the judge with friendly, large eyes. Although Judge Dee as a staunch Confucianist had little sympathy for the Buddhist creed, he had to admit that the small abbot was a remarkable personality, and had great dignity. He said a few polite words about the size and beauty of the temple.
The abbot raised his pudgy hand.
"It's all due to the mercy of our Lord Maitreya," he said. "Four centuries ago he deigned to manifest himself to this world in the shape of a sandalwood statue, more than five feet high, representing him sitting cross-legged, in meditation. Our founding saint discovered it in the cave, and thus this White Cloud Temple was built here, as guardian of the eastern part of our empire, and the protector of all seafarers." The abbot let the amber beads of his rosary glide through his fingers, softly saying a prayer. Then he resumed. "I had planned to invite your excellency personally to honor with his presence a ceremony which will soon be held in this humble temple."
"I shall deem it an honor," Judge Dee said with a bow. "What ceremony will that be?"
"The devout Mr. Koo Meng-pin," the abbot explained, "has asked permission to have a life-size copy made of the sacred statue, to be presented to the White Horse Temple, the central shrine of the Buddhist creed, in our imperial capital. He grudged no expense for having this pious work executed. He employed Master Fang, the best Buddhist sculptor in this province of Shantung, to make drawings of the sacred statue here in our temple, and to take the most careful measurements. Then Master Fang worked for three weeks in Mr. Koo's mansion sculpting the copy in cedarwood on the basis of his notes and sketches. All that time Mr. Koo treated Master Fang as his honored guest, and when the work was completed he gave a splendid feast, where Master Fang occupied the place of honor. This morning Mr. Koo had the cedarwood statue conveyed to this temple, in a beautiful case of rosewood."
The abbot nodded his round head with a satisfied smile; evidently these things meant a great deal to him. Then he resumed. "As soon as a lucky day has been determined for the auspicious event, the copy of the statue will be solemnly consecrated in this temple. The commander of the fort has obtained permission for us that the statue shall be escorted to the capital by a detachment of lance-knights. I shall not fail to inform your excellency in advance as soon as date and hour for the consecration ceremony have been fixed."
"The calculations have just been completed, your holiness," a deep voice spoke up behind the judge. "The time will be tomorrow evening, and the hour the end of the second night watch."
A tall, spare monk stepped forward. The abbot introduced him as Hui-pen, the prior of the temple.
"Wasn't it you who identified the dead monk this morning?" Judge Dee asked.
The prior gravely inclined his head.
"It is a complete mystery to all of us," he said, "for what reason our almoner Tzu-bai visited that distant place at such an unusual hour. The only explanation would seem to be that he had been called by one of the farmers in that neighborhood on an errand of mercy and was waylaid by robbers. But I suppose that your honor has found some clues?"
Slowly tugging at his side whiskers, judge Dee replied, "We think that a third person, as yet unknown, wanted to prevent at all costs the dead woman from being identified. When he happened to see your almoner passing there, he wanted to rob him of his cowl to wrap the woman's body in. You know that when he was found the almoner was clad only in his undergarment. I presume there was a scuffle, and Tzu-hai died from a sudden heart attack."
Hui-pen nodded. Then he asked, "Didn't your honor find his staff near his body?"
Judge Dee thought for a moment.
"No!" he said rather curtly. He had suddenly remembered a curious fact. When Dr. Tsao had surprised him in the mulberry bush, the doctor's hands had been empty. But when the judge overtook him on his way back to the road, he had been carrying a long staff.
"I will avail myself of this opportunity," Hui-pen continued, "to report to your honor that last night three robbers visited this temple. A monk in the gatehouse happened to see them when they climbed over the wall and fled. By the time he had raised the alarm, they had unfortunately already disappeared into the wood."
"I'll have this looked into at once," the judge said. "Could that monk give a description of them?"
"He didn't see much in the darkness," Hui-pen replied, "but he says all three were tall men, and that one had a thin, ragged beard."
"It would have helped," Judge Dee said stiffly, "if that monk had been a more observant fellow. Did they steal anything of value?"
"Being unfamiliar with the outlay of this temple," Hui-pen replied, "they searched only the back hall, and there they found only a few coffins!"
"That is fortunate," the judge remarked. To the abbot he continued, "I shall give myself the honor of presenting myself here tomorrow night at the appointed time."
He rose and took his leave with a bow. Hui-pen and the old monk conducted him and the sergeant to the palanquin.
When they were carried back over the Rainbow Bridge, Judge Dee said to Sergeant Hoong, "I don't think we can expect Ma Joong and Chiao Tai back before nightfall. Let's make a detour along the shipyard and the wharf, outside the north gate."
Hoong gave the order to the bearers, and they were carried north along the city's second shopping street.
Outside the north gate a scene of bustling activity met their eyes. On the shipyard stood a number of hulks, supported by wooden props. Countless workmen, stripped to their loincloths, swarmed over and under the ships, and there was a loud din of shouted orders and hammer blows.
The judge had never been in a shipyard before. Walking with Hoong through the crowd, he watched everything with interest. At the end of the yard a large junk was lying turned on one side. Six workmen were lighting a grass fire under it. Koo Meng-pin and his manager, Kim Sang, were standing nearby talking to the foreman.
When Koo saw the judge and Hoong he hurriedly dismissed the foreman and carne limping toward them. Judge Dee inquired curiously what the workmen were doing.
"This is one of my largest ocean junks," Koo explained. "They have careened it far burning the weeds and barnacles that have collected on its keel, and which impede its speed. Presently they'll scrape it clean, then recaulk it." As the judge stepped nearer to watch them, Koo laid his hand on his arm. "Don't go nearer, your honor!" he warned. "A few years ago a beam burst loose through the heat, and fell on my right leg. The fracture never healed properly, that's why I have to support myself on this stick."
"It's a beautiful piece," the judge said with appreciation, "that speckled bamboo from the south is quite rare."
"Indeed," Koo replied, looking pleased. "It has acquired a good luster. But this kind of bamboo is really too thin for making canes, that's why I had to use two sticks, joined together." Then he went on in an undertone, "I was present at the session. Your honor's revelations have deeply disturbed me. It's terrible what my wife did, a disgrace for me and my, entire family."
"You shouldn't draw hasty conclusions, Mr. Koo," Judge Dee remarked. "I was careful to stress that the identity of the woman has not yet been established."
"I deeply appreciate your honor's discretion," Koo said hurriedly. He cast a quick glance at Kim Sang and Sergeant Hoong.
"Do you recognize," the judge asked, "this handkerchief?"
Koo gave the embroidered piece of silk which judge Dee took from his sleeve a cursory look.
"Of course," he answered. "That's one of a set I gave my wife as a present. Where did your honor find it?"
"By the roadside, near the deserted temple," Judge Dee said. "I thought-" Suddenly he fell silent. He remembered that he had forgotten to ask the abbot when and why that temple had been vacated. "Did you," he asked Koo, "hear the rumors about that temple? People say that it's haunted. That, of course, is nonsense. But if there are indeed nightly visitors, I must look into that; it is quite possible that impious monks of the White Cloud Temple are engaging in some secret mischief there. That would explain the presence of that monk near Fan's farm, perhaps he was on his way to the temple! Well, I had better go back to the White Cloud Temple and ask the abbot or Hui-pen about it. By the way, the abbot told me about your pious undertaking. The consecration has been set for tomorrow night, I shall gladly attend."
Koo bowed deeply. Then he said, "Your honor can't leave here without partaking at least of a little snack! There is quite a good restaurant at the other end of the wharf, famous for its boiled crabs." To Kim Sang he said, "You can go on, you know what to do."
The judge was eager to get back to the temple, but he reflected that it might be useful to have a longer conversation with Koo. He told Hoong that he could return to the tribunal, and followed Koo.
Dusk was falling. When they entered the elegant pavilion on the waterside the waiters were already lighting the colored lampions that hung from the eaves. The two men sat down near the red-lacquered balustrade, where they could enjoy the cool breeze that came over the river and the gay sight of the colored lights in the sterns of the boats that went to and fro.
The waiter brought a large platter of steaming red crabs. Koo broke a few open for the judge. He picked out the white meat with his silver chopsticks, dipped it in a plate with ginger sauce and found it very appetizing. After he had drunk a small cup of yellow wine, he said to Koo, "When we were talking in the yard just now you seemed quite convinced that the woman on Fan's farm was your wife. I didn't like to ask you this awkward question in front of Kim Sang, but do you have any reason to suppose that she was unfaithful to you?"
Koo frowned. After a while he replied, "It's a mistake to marry a woman of quite different upbringing, your honor. I am a wealthy man, but I never had any literary education. It was my ambition to marry this time the daughter of a scholar. I was wrong. Although we were together only three days, I knew she didn't like her new life. I tried my best to understand her, but there was no response, so to speak." He suddenly added in a bitter voice, "She thought I wasn't good enough for her, and since she had been educated quite liberally, I thought that perhaps a previous attachment-"
His mouth twitched; he quickly emptied his wine cup.
"It's difficult for a third person," Judge Dee said, "to pronounce an opinion when the intimate relations between a married couple are concerned. I take it that you have good reason for your suspicions. But I for one am not convinced that the woman with Fan was your wife. I am not even sure that she was indeed killed. As to your wife, you know better than I do in what complications she may have become involved. If so, I advise you to tell me now. For her sake, and also for yours."
Koo gave him a quick glance. The judge thought he detected a glint of real fear in it. But then Koo spoke evenly.
"I have told you all I know, your honor." Judge Dee rose.
"I see that mist is spreading over the river," he remarked. "I'd better be on my way. Thanks for this excellent meal!"
Koo conducted him to his palanquin and the bearers took him back through the city to the east gate. They walked at a brisk pace, they were eager to eat their evening rice.
The guards at the temple gate looked astonished when they saw the judge pass through again.
The first court of the temple was empty. From the main hall higher up came the sound of a monotonous chanting. Evidentally the monks were performing the evening service.
A rather surly young monk came to meet the judge. He said that the abbot and Hui-pen were conducting the service, but that he would bring the judge to the abbot's quarters to have a cup of tea.
The two men silently crossed the empty courtyards. Arrived on the third court, judge Dee suddenly halted in his steps.
"The back hall is on fire!" he exclaimed.
Large billows of smoke and angry tongues of fire rose high up into the air from the yard below them.
The monk smiled.
"They are preparing to cremate the almoner Tzu-hai he said. "I have never seen a cremation before," Judge Dee exclaimed. "Let's go there and have a look." He made for the stairs, but the young monk quickly laid his hand on his arm.
"Outsiders are not permitted to witness that ritual!" he said. Judge Dee shook his arm free. He said coldly, "Your youth is the only excuse for your ignorance. Remember that you are addressing your magistrate. Lead the way."
In the yard in front of the back hall a tremendous fire was burning in a large open oven. There was no one about but one monk, who was busily working the bellows. An earthenware jar was standing by his side. The judge noticed also a large oblong box lying next to the oven.
"Where is the dead body?" he asked.
"In that rosewood box," the young monk said in a surly voice. "Late this afternoon the men from the tribunal brought it here on a litter. After the cremation the ashes are collected in that jar." The heat was nearly unbearable.
"Lead me to the abbot's quarters!" the judge said curtly. When the monk had taken him up on the terrace, he left to look for the abbot. He seemed to have forgotten all about the tea. Judge Dee did not mind; he started pacing the terrace, the cool, moist air that came up from the cleft was a pleasant change after the fearful heat near the furnace.
Suddenly he heard a muffled cry. He stood still and listened. There was nothing but the murmur of the water below in the cleft. Then the cry was heard again, it grew louder, then ended in a groan. It came from the cave of Maitreya.
The judge went quickly up the wooden bridge leading across the entrance of the cave. When he had done two steps he suddenly froze. Through the haze rising up from the cleft he saw the dead magistrate standing at the other end of the bridge.
A cold fear gripping his heart, he stared motionless at the grayrobed apparition. The eye sockets seemed empty, their blind stare and the gruesome spots of decay on the hollow cheeks filled the judge with an unspeakable horror. The apparition slowly lifted an emaciated, transparent hand, and pointed down at the bridge. It slowly shook its head.
The judge looked down to where the ghostly hand was pointing. He only saw the broad boards of the bridge. He looked up. The apparition seemed to be dissolving into the mist. Then there was nothing.
A CREMATION OVEN IN A TEMPLE
A long shiver shook the judge. He placed his right foot carefully on the board in the middle of the bridge. The board dropped. He heard it crash down on the stones at the bottom of the cleft, thirty feet below.
He stood motionless for some time, staring at the black gap in front of his feet. Then he stepped back and wiped the cold sweat from his brow.
"I deeply regret to have kept your honor waiting," a voice said. Judge Dee turned round. Seeing Hui-pen standing there, he silently pointed at the missing board.
"I told the abbot many times already," Hui-pen said, annoyed, "that those moldering boards must be replaced. One of these days this bridge will cause a serious accident!"
"It nearly did," Judge Dee said dryly. "Fortunately, I halted just when I was about to cross, because I heard a cry from the cave." "Oh, they are only owls, your honor," Hui-pen said. "They have their nests near the entrance of the cave. Unfortunately, the abbot can not leave the service before he has spoken the benediction. Can I do something for your honor?"
"You can," the judge answered. "Transmit my respects to his holiness!"
He turned and walked to the stairs.