A YOUNG WOMAN TELLS AN AMAZING TALE; AN OLD MAN CONFESSES A STRANGE CRIME
THE woman lifted her head and with a tired gesture raised her veil. The judge saw that she was a quite handsome girl of about twenty, with a friendly, very intelligent face. She spoke softly.
"This person is Mrs. Koo, n'ee Tsao."
Astonished exclamations rose from the spectators. Koo Mengpin quickly came forward. lie gave his wife one searching look, then returned to his place in the front row, his face a deadly pallor.
"You were reported missing, Mrs. Koo," Judge Dee said gravely. "Tell exactly what happened, beginning with the afternoon of the fourteenth, when you had left your brother behind."
Mrs. Koo gave the judge a pitiful look.
"Must I tell everything, your honor?" she asked. "I would rather-"
"You must, Mrs. Koo!" the judge said curtly. "Your disappearance is connected with at]cast one murder, and probably with other capital off enses. I am listening."
She hesitated somewhat, then began.
"When I bad taken the left turn to the highway, I met our neighbor Fan Choong, accompanied by a servant. I knew him my sight, so I saw no objection to answering his polite greetings. He asked me where I was going, and I told him that I was on my way back to the city, and that my brother would soon be joining me. When my brother did not appear, we rade back to the crossing and looked down the road, but there was no sign of him. I assumed that since we were near the highway already, lie had thought that I didn't need his escort any longer, and had walked home through the fields. Then Fan remarked that he was going to the city too, and offered to accompany me. He said he was going by the mud road; he assured me that it had been repaired and that the short cut would save us much time. Since 1 didn't like the idea of passing alone in front of the deserted temple, I accepted his offer.
"When we had arrived at the small hut that marks the entrance to Fan's farm, he said he had to give a message to his tenant farmer, and proposed that I rest awhile in the hut. I dismounted and sat down on the stool inside. Fan said something to his servant outside, then he came back. Looking me up and down with an evil leer, he said that he had sent his servant ahead to the farm because he wanted to spend some time alone with me."
Mrs. Koo paused a moment, an angry blush reddening her cheeks. She went on in a law voice.
He drew me toward him but I pushed him back, warning him that I would scream for help if he didn't leave me alone. But he said laughing that I could scream my head off because nobody would hear me, and that I'd better be nice to him. He started to tear my robes off. I fought back as well as I could but he was too strong. When he had stripped me lie bound my hands on my back with my sash and threw me on the heap of faggots. There I had to submit to his odious embraces. Afterward he untied my hands and told me to dress. He said he liked me, I wouid have to spend the night with him on his farm. He would bring me to town next day and tell my husband some good story. Nobody would ever know what had really happened.
"I knew I was at the rascal's mercy. We ate at the farm, then went to bed. As soon as Fan was fast asleep I wanted to get up and flee, and get back to my father's house. Suddenly I saw the window open, a tall ruffian climbed into the room, a sickle in his hand. In great fright I shook Fan awake, but the man sprang over to him and cut his throat with one blow of his sickle. Fan's body fell half over me, his blood spurted all over my face and breast-" Mrs. Koo buried her face in her hands. On a sign from the judge the headman offered her a bowl of bitter tea, but she shook her head and continued.
The man hissed, `Now you, you treacherous slut!' Adding some horrible words, he reached over the bed, felt for my hair, drew my head back and brought the sickle down on my throat. I heard a thud by the side of my head, then I lost consciousness.
"When I came to I was lying on a cart that was bumping along an uneven road. Fan's naked corpse was lying by my side. I then realized that the point of the sickle had struck the side of the bed, so that only the edge had scratched my throat. Since the murderer evidently thought he had killed me too, I feigned to be dead. Suddenly the cart halted, it was tilted and I slid to the ground together with the corpse. The murderer threw some dry branches over us, then I heard the cart moving away. I hadn't dared open my eyes, so I can't say who the murderer was. When be entered the bedroom I thought he had a rather thin, swarthy face, but that may have been the effect of the oil lamp in the corner.
"I scrambled up and looked around. I saw in the moonlight that I was in the mulberry bush near Fan's farm. At the same time I saw a monk coming down the mud road, from the direction of the city. Since I was clad only in my loincloth I wanted to hide behind a tree, but he had already seen me and carne running toward me. Leaning on his staff, he looked at Fan's corpse, then said to me, `You killed your lover, eh? You had better come along with me to the deserted temple and keep me company a bit. Then I promise I won't betray your secret!' He wanted to grab me and I cried out in fear. Suddenly another man appeared as if from nowhere. He barked at the monk. 'Who told you you could use the temple for raping women? Speak up!' He drew a long knife from his sleeve. The monk cursed and lifted his staff. But suddenly he gasped, clutched at his heart, and fell to the ground. The other quickly bent over him. Righting himself, he muttered something about having bad luck."
A GIRL SURPRISED IN A MULBERRY BUSH
"Do you think," judge Dee interrupted, "that the newcomer knew that monk?"
"I couldn't say, your honor," Mrs. Koo replied. "It all happened so quick, and the monk didn't call him by his name. Later I learned that he is called Po Kai. He asked me what was going on. He didn't as much as glance at my nakedness, and spoke like an educated man. Since despite his shabby clothes he also had a certain air of authority about him, I decided I could trust him, and told him everything. He offered to take me home to my husband, or to my father; they would know what to do. I told him frankly that I couldn't face either of them, I was half out of my mind and wanted time to think. I asked him whether he couldn't hide me somewhere for a day or two; in the meantime he could report P'an's murder, without saying anything about me, for I was certain that the murderer had mistaken me for another woman. He replied that the murder was no concern of his, but if I wanted to hide he would help me. He added that he himself was living with other people, and that a hostel would never accept a woman alone that time of the night. The only solution he could think of was to rent a room for me in one of the floating brothels, those people asked no questions and anyway he would tell them a plausible story-. I le told me he would bury the bodies in the middle of the mulberry bush; it would then take several clays before they would be discovered, and by that time I could decide whether I wanted to report to the tribunal on it or not. He took off the monk's cowl and told me to put it on after 1 had removed the blood from my face and bosom with my loincloth. When he came back I was ready. He took me to a wooded patch further along the mud road where he had tethered his horse, made me sit behind him and rode back to the city. At the canal lie rented a boat, and brought me to the floating brothels outside the east wall."
"How did you pass the guards at the city gate?" the judge asked. "He knocked on the south gate," Mrs. Koo said, "and acted as if he were very drunk. The guards knew him; he shouted something to them about importing new talent into the city. The guards told me to lift the hood, and when they saw I was indeed a woman they all laughed, nade some coarse jokes about Po Kai's pranks, and let us through.
"He rented a cabin for me on the boat. I didn't hear his whispered explanation to the woman in charge there, but I saw clearly that he gave her four silver pieces. I must say she treated me well. When I told her I couldn't afford to become pregnant she even gave me a medicine to take. I gradually recovered from my fright, and decided I would wait till Po Kai would come and then ask him to take me to my father. This morning the woman came to my room together with the waiter. She said that Po Kai was a criminal and had been arrested. She added that since he bad paid only a small advance for my dress and my lodging, I would have to work in the brothel to settle that debt. I told her indignantly that four silver pieces ought to cover those expenses and to spare, and that I wanted to leave there immediately. When this woman told the waiter to get her a whip, I thought that anything was better than falling into the clutches of these people, and told the woman I had witnessed the crime Po Kai had committed, and knew everything about other crimes of his. Then the woman became afraid and told the waiter that they would get into serious trouble with the authorities if they didn't report me. Thus the woman took me here to your honor's tribunal. I fully realize „that I should have listened to the advice of that man Po Kai. I don't know what crime he has committed but I can only say he treated me very well. I should have reported everything at once, but I was deeply upset by what I had gone through, and the only thing I wanted was to rest and consider calmly what I should do. This is the complete truth."
While the scribe was reading out his notes of her statement, the judge reflected that she had told her story in a frank and natural manner, and that it fitted all known facts. He knew now the meaning of the deep notch he had found in the edge of the bed on the farm, and now it had also become more understandable why Ah Kwang had not realized she was not Soo-niang; for when he turned with his sickle to her, he had been standing over on Fan's side of the bed, and her face had been covered with Fan's blood. Po Kai's readiness to assist her was easily explained; it confirmed his suspicions of Dr. Tsao. Dr. Tsao must be an associate of Po Kai in his dark schemes, and the latter had doubtless informed him that his daughter had happened to witness his meeting with one of their accomplices among the monks, and that he had arranged that she would be out of their way for a few days. That also explained Dr. Tsao's indifference to his vanished daughter's fate: he knew all the time that she was safe.
After Mrs. Koo had impressed her thumbmark on the document, the judge spoke.
"You went through some fearful experiences, Mrs. Koo. I don't think anyone could honestly say that he would have acted more wisely under similar circumstances. The legalistic problem of the degree of guilt of a woman who fails to report the murder of the man who a few hours previously had committed on her the capital crime of rape, I shall not enter into. It is not my duty to provide experts in jurisprudence with material for study. It is my duty to administer justice, and to see that the damage wrought by a crime is repaired. Therefore I rule that this court has no plaint against you, and herewith restore you to your husband, Koo Meng-pin."
As Koo came forward his wife gave him a quick look. But ignoring her completely, he asked in a strained voice, "Is there any proof, your honor, that my wife was indeed raped and that she did not voluntarily submit to that scoundrel's embraces?"
Mrs. Koo gasped incredulously, but judge Dee replied in an even voice, "There is." Taking the handkerchief from his sleeve, he added, "This handkerchief, which you yourself identified as belonging to your wife, was not found by the roadside as I previously stated, but in fact among the faggots in the hut on Fan's farm."
Koo bit his lips. Then he said, "That being so, this person does believe that his wife told the truth. But according to the code of honor observed in my humble family since generations, she should have killed herself immediately after the rape. Having failed to do so she brought shame over my house and I here state officially that I am compelled to repudiate her."
"That is your good right," Judge Dee said. "The divorce shall be duly registered. Let Dr. Tsao Ho-hsien come forward!"
Dr. Tsao knelt before the bench, muttering in his beard.
"Do you, Dr. Tsao," the judge asked, "agree to take your divorced daughter back to you?"
"It is my firm conviction," Dr. Tsao said in a loud voice, "that where fundamental principles are involved, one must not hesitate to sacrifice one's personal feelings. Moreover, being a man much in the public eye, I feel I must set an example to others, even if it hurts me, as a father, beyond words. Your honor, I cannot take back a daughter who has offended against our sacred moral codes."
"It shall be so recorded," Judge Dee said coldly. "Miss Tsao shall be given shelter in this tribunal, pending the completion of suitable arrangements."
He motioned Sergeant Hoong to lead Miss Tsao away. Turning to the woman of the brothel, he said, "Your attempt to force that girl to become a prostitute is a criminal offense. Since, however, you left her in peace till this morning, and since you show at least some understanding for your duties to this tribunal, I shall this time overlook that. But should any other complaint about you reach me, you'll get a whipping and your license will be suspended. That goes also for your colleagues out there. Go and tell them!" The woman scurried away. Judge Dee rapped his gavel and closed the session.
When he left the dais it struck him that Tang was absent. He asked Ma Joong about it, who replied, "While Dr. Tsao was before the bench, Tang suddenly mumbled something about feeling ill and disappeared."
"That fellow is really becoming a nuisance!" Judge Dee said, annoyed. "If this goes on I shall have to pension him off."
Opening the door of his office, he saw Sergeant Hoong and Miss Tsao sitting there. He told Ma Joong and Chiao Tai to wait awhile outside in the corridor.
While be sat down behind his desk he said briskly to the girl, "Well, Miss Tsao, now we must see what we can do for you. What are your own wishes?"
Her lips started trembling, but soon she had mastered herself. She said slowly, "I do realize now that according to the doctrine of our sacred social order I really ought to kill myself. But I must confess that at the time the idea of suicide simply didn't occur to me." She smiled wanly, then went on. "If I was thinking of anything at all out there on the farm, it was rather of how I could go on living! It is not that I am afraid to die, your honor, but I hate to do things I can't make sense of. I beg your honor to let me have the benefit of his advice."
"According to our Confucianist doctrine," Judge Dee answered, "woman should indeed keep herself pure and undefiled. I often wonder, however, whether this pronouncement does not refer to the mind rather than to the body. Be that as it may, our Master Confucius has also said, `Let humanity be your highest standard. I for one am firmly convinced, Miss Tsao, that all doctrinal pronouncements must be interpreted in the light of these great words."
Miss Tsao gave him a grateful look. She thought for a while, then said, "I think the best I can do now is to enter a nunnery."
"Since you never before felt the call to enter religious life," the judge remarked, "that would only be an escape, and that isn't good enough for a sensible young woman like you. Why not let me approach a friend of mine in the capital to employ you as a teacher for his daughters? In course of time he could doubtless arrange there a suitable second marriage for you."
Miss Tsao replied shyly, "I am deeply grateful for your honor's consider'ation. But my brief marriage to Koo was a failure, and what happened to me on the farm, together with what I couldn't help seeing and hearing during my stay on the flower boat, all that has made me forever averse to… the relations between men and women. Therefore I feel that a nunnery is the only right place for me."
"You are much too young to use the word 'forever,' Miss Tsao!" Judge Dee said gravely. "But it isn't meet that you and I discuss these things. In a week or two my family will be here, and I must insist that you talk over your plans thoroughly with my First Lady before you take a decision. Till then you'll_ stay in the house of our coroner, Dr. Shen, I hear his wife is a friendly and capable woman, and her daughter will be company for you. You'll now take Miss Tsao there, sergeant."
Miss Tsao bowed deeply, and Sergeant Hoong led her away. Then Ma Joong and Chiao Tai came in. The judge said to the latter, "You heard Dr. Tsao's complaint. I am sorry about that boy of his. I thought he was a nice youngster. Since you two are fully entitled to a day off, why don't you select a couple of hunters from among the guards and go upcountry to try to shoot that tiger? Ma Joong, you can stay here. After you have given the headman the necessary instructions for organizing with the city wardens a search for Po Kai, you can take a rest and look after your wounded arm. I won't need you two until late tonight, when all of us will have to attend that ceremony in the White Cloud Temple."
Chiao Tai agreed with enthusiasm. But Ma Joong growled at him, "You won't go without me, brother! You'll need me badly for holding the tiger by its tail while you are trying to hit it!"
The two friends laughed and took their leave.
Sitting alone at his piled desk, the judge opened the bulky dossier on the land taxes in the district. He felt he needed to distract his mind before he could settle down to a consideration of the new facts that had come to light.
He had not been reading for long, however, when there came a knock on the door. The headman entered, looking alarmed. "Your honor," he reported excitedly, "Mr. Tang has taken poison and is dying! He wants to see you!"
Judge Dee sprang up and rushed with the headman to the gate. Crossing the street to the hostel opposite, he asked, "Is there no antidote?"
He won't say what poison he swallowed," the headman panted. "And he waited till it was taking effect!"
In the corridor upstairs an elderly woman fell on her knees in front of the judge and implored him to forgive her husband. Judge Dee quickly said a few kind words, then she led him into a spacious bedroom.
Tang was lying in bed, his eyes closed. His wife sat down on the edge of the bed, and spoke softly to him. Tang opened his eyes; he sighed with relief as he saw the judge.
"Leave us alone," he muttered to his vife. She rose and the judge took her place. Tang gave him a long, searching look, then he spoke in a tired voice.
"This poison slowly paralyzes the body; my legs are getting numb already. But my brain is clear. I wanted to tell you about a crime I committed, and thereafter I wanted to ask you a question."
"Is there anything you didn't tell me about the magistrate's murder?" Judge Dee asked quickly.
Tang slowly shook his head.
"I told you all I know," he said. "I am too much concerned about the crimes committed by myself to worry about those of others. But that murder, and the ghostly apparition, deeply upset me. And when I am upset I can't control… the other. Then Fan was killed, the only human being I ever really cared for, I-"
"I know about you and Fan," Judge Dee interrupted him. "We go as nature directs us. If thus two adults find each other, it is their own affair. Don't worry about that."
"It isn't that at all," Tang said, shaking his head. "I only mention it to show that I was worried and nervous. And when I am feeling weak, the other inside me is too strong for me, especially when there is a bright moon in the sky." He breathed with difficulty. Heaving a deep sigh, he went on. "After all these long years I know him so well, him and all his nasty tricks! Besides, I once found a diary kept by my grandfather; he had to fight with him too. My father was free of him, but my grandfather hanged himself. He had reached the stage where he couldn't go on. Just as I have now taken poison. But now, now he'll have no place to go, for I have no children. He is going to die together with me!"
Tang's hollow face twisted in a wry smile. Judge Dee gave him a pitying look. Evidently the man's wits were wandering already. The dying man stared ahead of him for a while. Suddenly he looked at the judge, frightened. "The poison is getting higher!" he said tensely. "I must hurry! I'll tell you how it always happens, I would wake up in the night, feeling a tightness in my chest. I would rise, start pacing the floor, up and down, up and down. But the room would become very close, I wanted fresh air. I had to go out, into the street. But the streets would narrow down, the rows of houses with their high walls would start to crowd me, try to crush me… I would feel a fearful panic, I would gasp for breath. Then, just as I was going to suffocate, he would take over."
Tang heaved a deep sigh, he seemed to relax.
JUDGE DEE VISITS A DYING MAN
"I climbed on the city wall, and jumped down on the other side, just as I did again last night. Out in the country I felt new, vigorous blood pulsing through my veins, I felt strong and exhilarated; fresh air filled my lungs, nothing could oppose me. A new world opened for me. I smelled the different sorts of grasses, I smelled the wet earth, and I knew a hare had passed there. I opened my eyes wide, and I could see in the dark. I sniffed the air and I knew there was a pool of water among the trees ahead. Then I smelled another scent, a scent that made me crouch close to the ground, all my nerves taut. The scent of warm, red blood-"
Horrified, the judge saw the change that had conic over Tang's face. His green eyes were fixing him with narrowed pupils over cheekbones that suddenly seemed broader, his mouth contorted in a snarl that bared pointed, yellow teeth; the gray mustache stood on end like a bristle. Frozen with terror, the judge saw the ears moving. Two clawlike hands came up from under the cover.
Suddenly the clawing fingers unbent, the arms fell down. T'ang's face changed into a hollow death mask. He spoke in a weak voice. "I would wake up lying in my bed again, drenched in sweat. I would rise, light a candle and hurry to the mirror. The relief, the unspeakable relief when I saw no blood on my face!" He paused, then said shrilly, "But now I tell you he is taking advantage of my weak condition, he is forcing me to take part in his vile crimes! Last night I knew I was attacking Tsao Min; I didn't want to spring on him, I didn't want to hurt him… But I had to, I swear I had to, I had to-" His voice was rising to a scream.
The judge quickly laid a soothing hand on Tang's forehead, covered with cold perspiration.
Tang's scream died out in a rattle, deep in his throat. He stared at the judge in panic, frantically trying to move his lips. But only a few inarticulate sounds came out. As the judge bent over him to listen better, Tang brought out with a last effort, "Tell me… am I guilty?"
Suddenly a film closed over his eyes. His mouth sagged open. His face relaxed.
The judge rose and pulled the cover over Tang's head. Now the Highest judge would answer the dead man's question.