A PIOUS ABBOT CONDUCTS A MAGNIFICENT CEREMONY; A SKEPTICAL PHILOSOPHER LOSES HIS BEST ARGUMENT
THE Rainbow Bridge outside the east gate was illuminated by a row of large lanterns, their colored lights reflected in the dark water of the creek. The road leading to the White Cloud Temple was lined by garlands of gaily colored lamps hung from high poles that had been erected on both sides of the road, and the temple itself was brilliantly lighted by torches and oil lamps.
When Judge Dee's palanquin was being carried over the bridge he saw that there were only very few people about. The hour set for the ceremony had arrived; the citizens of Peng-lai had already assembled inside the temple compound. The judge was accompanied only by his three assistants and two constables. Sergeant Hoong sat opposite him inside the palanquin, Ma Joong and Chiao Tai followed on horseback, and the two constables led the way, carrying on long poles lampions with the inscription "The Tribunal of Peng-lai."
The palanquin was carried up the broad marble stairs of the gatehouse. The judge heard the sounds of cymbals and gongs that punctuated the monotonous chant of the monks, who were singing a Buddhist litany in chorus. Through the gate came the heavy scent of Indian incense.
The main courtyard of the temple was filled by a dense multitude. Overlooking the crowd, on the high terrace in front of the main hall, the abbot was sitting cross-legged on his thronelike seat of red lacquer. He was clad in the violet cassock of his high office, and had a stole of gold brocade round his shoulders. On his left sat the shipowner Koo Meng-pin, the warden of the Korean quarter, and two guild masters, all on lower chairs. The high chair on the abbot's right, the seat of honor, was unoccupied. Next to it sat a captain sent by the commander of the fort, in shining armor and carrying a long sword. Then came Dr. Tsao and two other guild masters.
In front of the terrace a raised platform had been built, and thereon was erected a round altar, richly decorated with silk scarves and fresh flowers. There was enthroned the cedarwood copy of the statue of the Lord Maitreya, under a purple canopy, supported by four gilded pillars.
Round the altar were sitting about fifty monks. Those on the left played various musical instruments, the others formed the chorus. The platform was surrounded by a cordon of lance-knights with shining mail coats and helmets. All around them thronged the crowd; those who had not succeeded in finding a place were precariously perched on the high socles of the pillars that lined the front of the side buildings.
Judge Dee's palanquin was set down at the entrance to the court. A deputation of four elderly monks, resplendent in robes of yellow silk, came to greet him. As the judge was being conducted through the narrow roped-off path leading to the terrace, he noticed among the crowd of onlookers many Chinese and Korean sailors who had come to worship their patron saint.
The judge ascended the terrace, and made a slight bow in front of the small abbot. He told him that pressing official business had caused a delay. The abbot nodded graciously, took his aspersorium and sprinkled the judge with holy water. Then Judge Dee sat down, his three assistants behind his chair. The captain, Koo Meng-pin and the other leading citizens rose and bowed deeply in front of the judge. When they had resumed their seats the abbot gave a sign and the orchestra struck up. The monks of the chorus began chanting a solemn hymn in praise of Buddha.
As the hymn was nearing its end, the large bronze temple bell started booming. On the platform ten monks led by Hui-pen began walking slowly round the altar, swinging their censers. Thick clouds of incense enveloped the statue, which had been burnished to a beautiful shiny dark brown.
Having completed the ceremonial circumambulation, Hui-pen descended from the platform and went up the terrace to the abbot's chair. He knelt and raised above his head a small roll of yellow silk. The abbot leaned forward and accepted the roll from Hui-pen's hands. Hui-pen rose and resumed his place on the platform.
Three beats on the temple bell resounded over the assembly. Then deep silence reigned. The consecration ceremony was going to begin. The abbot would read aloud the prayers inscribed on the yellow roll, then he would sprinkle it with holy water, and finally the roll and some other small ritual objects would be placed in a cavity in the statue's back, thus imparting to it the same mystic virtue possessed by the original sandalwood statue of Maitreya in the cave.
As the abbot started to unroll the yellow scroll, judge Dee suddenly rose. He went to stand on the edge of the terrace, and slowly surveyed the crowd. All eyes turned to that commanding figure in the long robe of shimmering green brocade. The light of the torches shone on his winged cap of black velvet, seamed with gold. The judge stroked his beard for a while, then put his arms into his wide sleeves. His voice rang out clearly over the assembly as he spoke.
"The imperial government has graciously granted their high protection to the Buddhist Church, inasmuch as its lofty teachings are held to have a beneficial influence on the manners and morals of our myriad black-haired people. It is therefore the duty of me, the magistrate, who represents the imperial government here in Penglai, to protect this holy sanctuary, the White Cloud Temple, all the more so since the sacred statue of the Lord Maitreya preserved on its premises guards the lives of our sailors who brave the dangers of the deep."
"Amen!" the small abbot said. At first he had seemed annoyed by the interruption of the ceremony, but now he was nodding his head with a benign smile. He evidently approved of his speech, unannounced as it was.
Judge Dee continued, "Now the shipowner Koo Meng-pin has donated a replica of this sacred statue of the Lord Maitreya, and we are gathered here to witness its solemn consecration. The imperial government has graciously consented that after the ceremony has been completed, the statue shall be conveyed to the imperial capital by a military escort. The government wishes in this manner to show its reverence for a duly consecrated image of a Buddhist deity, and to ensure that nothing untoward will happen to this statue during its transportation to the capital.
"Since I, the magistrate, am fully responsible for all that happens in this officially recognized place of worship, it is my duty to verify, before I give my consent to the consecration, whether this statue is indeed what it is claimed to be, namely a faithful copy carved in cedarwood of the sacred statue of the Lord Maitreya."
A murmur of astonishment rose up from the assembly. The abbot looked dumbfounded at the judge, perplexed by this unexpected ending of what he had supposed to be a congratulatory message. There was some commotion among the monks on the platform. Hui-pen wanted to descend to consult with the abbot, but the soldiers did not let him pass.
Judge Dee raised his hand, and the crowd fell silent again.
"I shall now order my assistant," Judge Dee announced, "to verify the authenticity of this statue."
He gave a sign to Chiao Tai, who quickly went down from the terrace and ascended the platform. Pushing the monks aside, he went in front of the altar and drew his sword.
Hui-pen stepped up to the balustrade. He shouted in a stentorian voice, "Shall we allow this holy statue to be desecrated, risking the terrible wrath of the Lord Maitreya, and thereby imperiling the dear lives of our people at sea?"
An angry roar rose from the crowd. Led by the sailors, they surged forward toward the platform, shouting their protests. The abbot stared at the tall figure of Chiao Tai, his lips parted in fright. Koo, Tsao and the guild masters began whispering to each other anxiously. The captain from the fort worriedly surveyed the excited crowd and his hand went to the hilt of his sword.
Judge Dee raised both his hands.
"Stand back!" he shouted peremptorily at the crowd. "Since this statue has not yet been consecrated it is not entitled to our respect!"
Loud shouts of "Hear and obey!" were heard coming from the entrance to the court. When the people turned their heads they saw that dozens of fully-armed constables and guards of the tribunal were running in.
Chiao Tai felled Hui-pen by hitting him on the head with the flat of his sword. Then he lifted it again and dealt the statue a ferocious blow on its left shoulder. The sword leapt from his hand and clattered to the floor. The statue appeared completely undamaged.
"A miracle!" the abbot shouted ecstatically.
The crowd pressed forward and the lance-knights had to keep them back with their leveled spears.
Chiao Tai jumped down from the platform. The soldiers made way for him and he ran up to the terrace. He handed the judge a small piece his sword had chipped off the shoulder of the statue.
Holding the shining sliver up so that all could see it, judge Dee shouted, "A base fraud has been committed! Impious crooks have insulted the Lord Maitreya!"
Shouting above the din of incredulous voices, he went on. "This statue is not made of cedarwood, but of solid gold! Greedy criminals wanted thus to convey their smuggled gold to the capital for their illegal gain! I, the magistrate, accuse of this atrocious sacrilege the donor of the statue, Koo Meng-pin, his accomplices, Tsao Ho-hsien and Hui-pen, and declare the abbot and all the other inmates of this temple under arrest, to be heard on the charge of complicity in this sacrilegious crime!"
The crowd kept quiet now; they began to understand the implications of judge Dee's words. They were impressed by his deep sincerity, and curious to know more about this unexpected development. The captain took his hand from his sword with a sigh of relief.
Judge Dee's voice rang out again.
"I shall now first hear Koo Meng-pin, whom the state accuses of desecration of a recognized place of worship, defrauding the state by smuggling and the murder of an imperial official!"
Two constables dragged Koo from his seat, and pressed him down on his knees at the feet of the judge. He was completely taken by surprise. Ills face was ashen and he was trembling violently.
Judge Dee addressed him sternly.
"In the tribunal I shall formulate the triple charge against you in great detail. Your evil plot is well known to me. How you clandestinely imported large quantities of gold from Japan and Korea, smuggled that gold to the Korean quarter and thence to this temple, in the form of gold bars concealed inside the staffs of traveling monks. How the accused Tsao Ho-hsien received those loaded staffs in the deserted temple west of the city, and conveyed them to the capital concealed in his book packages. How when his excellency the late Wang Te-hwa, magistrate of this district, became suspicious, you had him murdered by a poison hidden in the roof beam of his library, above his tea stove. And last, how you planned to crown your despicable crimes by casting this statue in solid gold, to be used for your fraudulent manipulations. Confess!"
A PHILOSOPHER LOSES AN ARGUMENT
"I am innocent, your honor!" Koo cried out. "I never knew that this statue was made of gold, and I-"
"Enough of your lies!" Judge Dee barked. "His Excellency Wang told me himself that it was you who planned to murder him! I'll show you his message to me."
The judge took from his sleeve the antique lacquer box that the Korean girl had given to Chiao Tai. He held up its lid, decorated with the pair of golden bamboo stems. Then he resumed.
"You stole the papers inside this box, Koo, and thought that thereby you had obliterated all evidence against you. But little did you know the brilliant mind of your victim. The box itself constitutes the clue! The pair of bamboos depicted on this box points straight at the pair of bamboos of that stick that is your inseparable companion!"
Koo shot a quick look at his stick, standing against his chair. The silver rings that kept the two parallel bamboo stems together glittered in the light of the torches. He silently bowed his head.
The judge continued inexorably, "And the dead magistrate also left other clues, proving that he knew that you were engaged in this nefarious plot, and that it was you who were planning to murder him. I repeat, Koo, confess, and name your accomplices!"
Koo raised his head and stared forlornly at the judge. Then he stammered, "I… I confess."
He wiped the perspiration from his brow, then went on in a toneless voice.
"Monks of temples in Korea, traveling in my ships up and down between the Korean ports and Peng-lai, carried the gold bars in their staffs, and Hui-pen and Dr. Tsao were indeed the men who helped me to get the gold from here to the deserted temple, and thence to the capital. Kim Sang assisted me, the almoner Tzu-hai assisted Hui-pen, together with ten other monks whom I shall name. The abbot and the other monks are innocent. The golden statue was cast here under the supervision of Hui-pen, using the fire used for cremating the body of Tzu-hai. The real replica, made by Master Fang, I concealed in my residence. Kim Sang employed a Korean artisan to insert the poison in the roof beam in Magistrate Wang's library, thereafter sent that man back to Korea on the next boat."
Koo raised his head and looked entreatingly at the judge. He cried out, "But I swear that in all these matters I only acted on orders, your honor! The real criminal-"
"Be silent!" Judge Dee ordered him in a thunderous voice. "Don't try to foist new lies on me! Tomorrow you shall have full opportunity for pleading your own cause, in the tribunal." To Chiao Tai he said, "Seize me this man and bring him to the tribunal."
Chiao Tai quickly bound Koo's hands on his back and marched him off, with two constables on either side of him.
Judge Dee pointed at Dr. Tsao, who had remained sitting in his chair as if petrified. But when he saw Ma Joong approaching him he suddenly jumped up and rushed to the other end of the terrace. Ma Joong sprang after him, the doctor tried to duck but Ma Joong caught the end of his flowing beard. Dr. Tsao cried out; his beard came off in Ma Joong's large fist. On the small, receding chin of the doctor there remained only part of a thin strip of plaster, partly ripped off. As he lifted his hands to his bare chin with a howl of despair, Ma Joong caught his wrists and bound them together behind the doctor's back.
A slow smile ht up judge Dee's stern features. He said to himself with satisfaction, "So that beard was false!"