The Specimen Case - Ernest Bramah - ebook

The Specimen Case ebook

Ernest Bramah



Working name of UK author Ernest Brammah Smith (1868-1942) for all his writing; he is best-known for two series, the Max Carrados books about a blind detective, all of whose Perceptions are enormously enhanced, and a series of tales in which the Chinese Kai Lung tells stories – often to stave off some unpleasant fate, like Scheherazade. At the height of his fame, Bramah’s mystery tales, featuring the blind detective, appeared alongside Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories in the Strand Magazine, even occasionally outselling them. This early work by Ernest Bramah was originally published in 1924. A collection of twenty-one short stories which bridge, in the process of their writing, thirty years of life, one featuring Kai Lung and another featuring blind detective Max Carrados. Highly recommended this entertaining reading!

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A COLLECTION of twenty-one stories which bridge, in the process of their writing, thirty years of life, might be expected to offer at least the element of variety. How far the present volume succeeds or fails in this respect I am not just now concerned in arguing, but the occasion has reminded me...

When I was very young (how young, the reader may gather from the context) I was for some time possessed by one definite ambition: to have to my credit a single example of every kind of literary exercise. To anticipate repeating any of these facile achievements would seem to have held no charm, and at this flight of time I am fax from being certain what the youth who is now so dim a shadow in memory’s background would have included in his quaint and ingenuous assemblage. But there were to be, I am sure, an historical romance; a psychological study; a “shilling shocker” (as it was then called); an intensely pathetic book (Misunderstood was doubtless still being spoken of); an epic (or was the thing I meant called a saga, I wondered?); something quite unlike anything that had ever been written before; a classic (I have already pleaded infancy); a “best seller” (but that distressing cliche was as yet uncoined); a novel showing my intimate knowledge of the world, women, and sin in general; one of each kind of play; and, if I may drop my voice a Punch joke, a prize Tit-Bit, and a Family Herald Supplement.

I suppose it is credible that at that age (whatever it may have been) abnormal reticence should go hand in hand with appalling candour. We must have talked; otherwise how should I have known that Batget (since become wealthy as a lard importer) made a practice of rising an hour before he need each day, solely to avoid encountering a rejected manuscript at the domestic breakfast table? I must have talked; otherwise how should Melwish have known anything of these callow aspirations?

Melwish was the enigma of our genial gatherings. Middle-aged, successful and clear-cut, he appeared to find some interest in the society of the young, the impecunious and the half-baked. We knew that he was a prolific fiction writer; indeed it was usual to pick up a magazine of a sort that did not contain one of his unsophisticated little love stories; and we wondered how on earth he did it–not in the writing but the marketing thereof. So simple, so sheerly artless was he both in matter and in manner as to give rise to the occasional heresy that there really must be something in them after all or no one would accept his stuff. But on the whole we classed it as pretty hopeless tripe, although we did not fail to congratulate Melwish whenever the occasion fitly offered. Our own efforts lay in the direction of originality and something better than the editors were used to: Lang’s How to Fail in Literature had obviously reached us then, but Leonard Merrick’s Cynthia certainly had not. Melwish took it all quietly and easily; he was essentially a listener and gave nothing in return–except a rescuing donation when the state of the society’s funds urgently required it.

How it came about I have long ago forgotten, but one night I found myself walking with Melwish down the Strand. Possibly I had been speaking of his work; more probably of my own. In any case he would have been the listener.

At the corner of one of the southward streets he stopped; my way lay up Chancery Lane, so that we seemed to be on the point of parting.

“Where do you dig?” he suddenly asked, detaining me. “Are you in any hurry?”

“Up in Bloomsbury,” I replied, with just the discreet touch of ambiguity. “No, it doesn’t matter what time I get there. Why?”

“Do you care to see my place?” he asked. “You might have a drop of something to carry you along.”

This unexpected offer was rather exciting in its way. Generous enough after his own fashion, Melwish did not incline towards private hospitality; even the quarter of London he homed in was a matter of occasional speculation. He alone among us possessed a club address.

“I should be delighted if it’s not troubling you,” I replied–we were always rather on our company manners with this seasoned adult. “I had no idea that you lived anywhere round here.”

“I don’t; it’s only a workroom that I have...I suppose,” he added thoughtfully, “you really wonder that my particular sort of sludge should require any particular place to turn it out in? I expect you youngsters guy it pretty well when I’m not there.”

This made matters rather easier, as I could be virtuously indignant.

“I bet we jolly well wish we could do half as well,” I exclaimed, possibly with a mental reservation that I spoke financially. “We only wonder that you should ever think it worth while to come among us.”

We had reached Melwish’s outer door. He turned in the act of opening it to face me as he spoke.

“I go,” he said dryly, “to hear you fellows talk.” A whole diatribe could not have expressed more.

The workroom proved to be a very comfortably-appointed study, reached through a little ante-room, furnished as a hall. Everything proclaimed the occupant’s success in life. Melwish lit the gas-fire and pulled up an easy-chair for me. While he engaged himself with spirit-lamp and glasses I looked frankly about the room. An illustrated interview was among the things I meant to do, and I speculated whether my host’s standing would carry it. At all events there would be no harm in laying a foundation.

“Do you find it necessary to sit on any particular chair or to adopt any especial position while you write?” I inquired, apropos of the room at large. These intriguing, details always bulked in an interview with an author in those days.

“My dear lad,” he replied tolerantly, “I haven’t the least doubt that I could write equally well if I stood on my head all the time.”

“Then you have no pet superstition or favourite mascot that you rely on?” I persisted.

“No,” he grunted, conveying the impression that he thought I was talking hectic nonsense; and then I saw him pause and think, and turning down the spirit-lamp for a moment he came across to me.

“Yes, I have, by Jupiter,” he admitted slowly. “I was forgetting that. You see the inkstand there? Well, I have the strongest possible conviction that in order to keep my work what is termed ‘up to magazine standard,’ I must write from that.

“This is jolly interesting,” I said–the interview promised to be fashioning. “May I look at it?” Melwish nodded and went back to the brew.

Without doubt it was worth inspecting–in a way. It was absolutely the ugliest inkpot that I had ever seen, and it was probably the most inconvenient. Its owner pointed out, later on, that in order to fill it one had to use a funnel, and that when filled it was difficult, except by way of a pen, to get the ink out again; but he was mistaken in this, for I got a considerable amount out on to my grey trousers quite easily. It was extremely top-heavy, very liable to catch passing objects, and would be unusually intricate in cleaning. All this was accounted for by the fact that it had been fashioned by a “craftsman.”

So much for its qualities. In shape it was modelled as a turnip. It was, in fact, a silver turnip. A few straggling leaves sprouted from the crown and an attenuated root got into the way beneath. A hinged lid towards the top disclosed the ink-well and the whole thing stood on three incongruous feet. Before I had done with it I discovered an inscription across the front, and lifting it (hence the contretemps) I read the single line of inconspicuous script:

Remember the Man with the Hoe.

“Jolly fine thing,” I remarked, when I had admired it sufficiently. “I don’t wonder that you are fond of it.”

“I’m not,” he said. “The damned thing would be an eyesore in a pig-sty. All the same it has served its purpose. Yes, B., every ounce of my success I owe to that incredible abortion.”

“Go on!” I exclaimed. The interview was positively creaming.

Melwish added the last touch to the concocting of the drinks and indicated mine–possibly one was slightly less potent than the other.

“I’ve used that metallurgic atrocity for nearly twenty years now, four days a week, six hours a day, and not a soul on earth knows why. But I’m going to tell you, B., because you talk like a–well, something in the way I did myself at about your age.”

“Good,” I contributed to encourage him; and not to overdo it I said no more.

“When I was about your age,” he continued, “I was doing pretty much as you are, and with about the same result. Then going along the Edgeware Road late one starry night, with Swift walking on one side of me and Defoe upon the other, I suddenly got an inspiration for a masterpiece. I expect you know how they come–all at once clean into your head without any making up on your part.”

“Why, yes,” I admitted, in some surprise, “but I didn’t know that–that anyone else–”

“Everyone,” he retorted bluntly. “This idea involved a full- length book, such as would take me at least two years to write. I ruminated on it for the next few months and it grew spontaneously in the usual way. Then I began the writing, did the opening chapters, and stuck hopelessly.

“I saw at once what the matter was. Summer had come and I couldn’t get on with the thing here in London. It needed space and solitude. I had a few pounds to spare; I packed up and went off into the country, intending to stay at some cottage for a couple of months and come back with the difficulties surmounted and the whole line in trim.

“I got my room easily enough and settled down there at once, but of course I could hardly expect to do anything the first night–the light was poor and the place so damn quiet that you had to listen to it. The next morning I set out to take the manuscript off into the fields and get it going there. It was a simple matter to find a field-path, but I had to go a considerable distance to get the exact spot I fancied. Then I discovered that it was too hot and brilliant in the sun and not quite pleasant out of it. There were more distractions of one sort and another than you would have credited; in the end I fell asleep, thinking out some detail of the plot, and when I woke it was about time to get back for dinner.

“On my way in, the path led through a turnip-field where a venerable labourer was hoeing. In the interests of local colour I stopped to pass a few words with this ancient and to observe his system. He walked between two rows of young plants and very dexterously, considering his archaic tool, he chopped them all down with the exception of a single turnip every foot or so. He used judgment too and would let the space be a little more or a little less in order to select a particularly vigorous growth if one offered, but I saw that at least twenty young hopes must wither for the single one that grew–a saddening thought, especially at our job, B. Then, just ahead of us, I noticed an exceptionally well-grown young plant, standing by itself. It was the finest of any about, and I saw with quite a personal satisfaction that it would come at the right interval...Without a pause Old Mortality chopped it down.

“‘Why, man alive!’ I exclaimed, ‘you’ve sacrificed the most promising of the lot!’

“‘Oh, aye,” he replied–I won’t attempt the barbarous dialect–‘it was a likely enough young turnip, but don’t you see, master, it was out of line with all the rest? Even it it didn’t get cut off by hand sooner or later, the horse-hoe would be bound to finish it when once it came along.’ And then, B., the hob-nailed philosopher uttered this profound truth: ‘An ordinary plant where it’s wanted has a sight more chance of coming to something than a giant where it isn’t.’

“I walked on with my ideas suddenly brought out into the clear light of day, and perhaps for the first time in my life I really set before my sober judgment a definition of what I wanted to do and what were the pros and cons of ever doing it...After dinner I burned the manuscript of the masterpiece, as much as I had written, and with it all the notes and jottings I had made. Then I sat down to write a short story for the magazines.

“Of course I knew well enough what sort of stories the magazines wanted. Everyone knows and in a general way everyone can write them. The line of demarcation isn’t whether you can or can’t, but whether you do or don’t. Outside my cottage window was an orchard, and I wrote a story about two lovers who met there for the last time. She thought that she ought to give him up for some insane reason or other, and he thought that she oughtn’t. They talked all round it and when, finally, he saw how noble she was and they were parting irrevocably, she suddenly threw herself into his arms and said that she couldn’t, and he saw how much nobler she was. There was a dog that looked on and expressed various sympathetic emotions, and so forth. There wasn’t a word in it that a tram conductor couldn’t have written, and from beginning to end it didn’t contain a page whose removal would have made the slightest difference to the sense. It was soothing in the way that the sound of a distant circular saw, or watching an endless chain of dredging buckets at work, soothes. A reader falling asleep over the story (an extremely probable occurrence) would wake up without the’ faintest notion of whether he had read all of it, some of it, or none of it. I didn’t even trouble to find names for the two imbeciles: they were just ‘the Man’ and ‘the Girl.’

“It took a single afternoon to write that four-thousand-word story–of course there was no need to read it over–and I addressed it at once to an editor whom I knew slightly. I had ample time before the mail went to stroll down to the village office and send it off. Afterwards I wrote a short, light article with the title, ‘Why do Long-nosed Girls Marry Photographers?’ It had to be written in the dark, but that made no difference.

“The next day I wrote the same story over again, giving the couple names this time, putting them on a romantic Cornish shore instead of in an orchard, and changing the dog into a sea-gull. I had no wish to repeat myself literally in any detail, but when you reflect that it is impossible to remember a story of that kind ten minutes after you have read it, you will see that it is unnecessary to take any especial pains to avoid some slight resemblance. As a matter of fact I have been writing that particular story at least once a month ever since.

“Three days later I heard from the editor in question. He congratulated me on having hit off their style so successfully at last. Would two guineas a thousand suit? And he hoped that I would let him see anything further in the same pleasant vein. The article was not so promptly dealt with where it went, but in due course I received notice of acceptance, subject to a trifling change of title, which would make it more attractive to the bulk of their readers. When the proof came along I noticed that it was headed, ‘Why do Photographers Marry Long-nosed Girls?’”

“Well?” I prompted.

“That’s all,” he replied. “Except, of course,”–with a complacent look around the attractive room–”the et ceteras of life.”

There were several things that I would have liked to know, especially exactly how much money he was making now, but Melwish seemed to think that he had told his story, and, after all, there was always a certain air of detachment about the man in his attitude towards us.

“Think it over, B.,” he concluded, as I rose to go a little later. “You’re only a young beggar yet.”

“Jolly decent of you to take the trouble,” was my dutiful reply. “Still,” I reminded him, “you did say that you liked to hear us young beggars talk.”

“Yes,” he admitted, dropping into that caustic tone of his; “but I doubt if you quite appreciate why.”

Certainly I have wondered about that once or twice since.

He came down to the lower door to let me out. It had been raining in the meanwhile and a forlorn creature who was evidently sheltering for the time almost fell into our arms. He offered a box of matches in extenuation of his presence.

“No,” said Melwish very sharply, “and remember what I told you about hanging round this doorway, Thompson. A wretched fellow,” he explained, as the miserable being shambled off into the night; “impossible to help that sort. I put him in the way of a nice job delivering circulars once and he threw it up within a week. You’d hardly credit it, B., but that wastrel fancies his real forte is to write–verse, if you please, at that! Pretty pass we’re coming to. Well, so long.”

*     *


THERE is, you will (I hope) notice, a certain system in the arrangement of this book of stories. It is not–if an author may speak more than very casually of his own work without indelicacy–intended essentially as a collection of quite the best stories I might perhaps have chosen, nor is it, I am more than sure, a collection of anything like the worst that were available; it consists rather of a suitable example taken at convenient intervals over the whole time that I have been engaged in writing stories–a span of thirty years. In every case, therefore, the date at which the tale was written is attached–the place of writing being added merely, in the words of Mr. Finch McComas, “to round off the sentence.” Each tale thus becomes a sort of milestone by which, should you happen to maintain so much interest, you can estimate your author’s progress–backwards or forwards, as you may decide.

When the suggestion of this collection first arose there had already been published two volumes of what are now generally referred to as “Kai Lung” stories, and another pair of what might with more propriety be described as “Max Carrados” tales. There being no lack of other material available it seemed fitting that in this instance all stories of those two distinctive classes should be ruled out, and no doubt this would have been the plan had not, about that time, the Mystery arisen.

It is a little difficult, as the hand holds the pen, to appreciate a Mystery in relation to oneself. The nearest parallel that occurs is the case of the dentist (as described in Punch) who administered gas to himself preparatory to extracting one of his own teeth. Being intimately concerned, but quite unconscious of what is going on, I am therefore driven to contemporary record. So far as I have any evidence, Mr. Edward Shanks was the first to use the fatal word. Referring to The Wallet of Kai Lung, he would seem to have written: “Its name was therefore passed from mouth to mouth in a mysterious way, but few people had ever seen it or knew what it was like.”

If this is indeed the fount and origin of the legend the historic reference may be proved in the Queen of December the 2nd, 1922. It sounds harmless enough, and in any case I take the opportunity of publicly forgiving Mr. Shanks whatever may result, but Dark Forces were evidently at work, for a few weeks later Mr. Grant Richards found it necessary (in the Times Literary Supplement) to declare: “Meanwhile I am asked all sorts of questions about the book and its author. Is there really such a person as Ernest Bramah? and so on.”

The “so on” has a pleasantly speculative ring–to me, that is to say. At all events, whatever Mr. Richards had been asked, his diplomatic reference answered nothing, so that, later, he is induced to state without reserve: “Finally, I do assure his readers that such a person as Ernest Bramah does really and truly exist. I have seen and touched him.” This should settle the matter, you would say? Not a bit of it. Turn to “N. G. R.-S.” in the Westminster Gazette: “He assures us that there is such a person as Ernest Bramah. Well, there may be! I myself still believe...” (This break does not represent omitted matter, but “N. G. R.-S.’s” too-sinister-for-words private belief.) “Anyway, you can now buy The Wallet for seven-and-sixpence and form your own opinion of the reasons which keep the author of such a book so closely mysterious behind his unusual name.”

And then, surely the most astonishing of all, there is Miss Rose Macaulay: Miss Macaulay the relentless precision, so flawlessly exact that she must by now hate the phrase “hard brilliance,” author of Potterism (in whose dedication I have never ceased to cherish an ifinitesimal claim), retailing “They say” with the cheerful irresponsibility of a village gossip. “N. G. R.-S.”, it will be seen, gilds the pill of innuendo with a compliment; Miss Macaulay administers a more salutary dose: “The crude, stilted, Conan Doyleish English of his detective stories certainly goes far to bear out the common theory that Mr. Bramah has a literary dual personality” (Nation and Athenaeum).

Finally (perhaps), to my hand as I write this Preface there comes a letter conveying the excogitation of an American publisher, representative of a firm which has already issued three books bearing my name. Casually, quite naturally, among other mundane business details, he drops the inspiring remark: “I have always had a feeling that you were a mythical person.” So, in the language of a bygone age, that’s that. After all, there is something not unattractive in the idea of being a mythical person...though from the heroic point of view one might have wished that it could have been “a mythological personage.”...

Should the reader, still maintaining the intellectual curiosity which I have credited to him, here exclaim, “What is all this about and why?” I can only assure him that I have not the faintest notion. He and I are equally in the dark.

Apparently, there is no simple middle way, no sheltered, obvious path. Either I am to have no’ existence, or I am to have decidedly too much: on the one hand banished into space as a mythical creation; on the other regarded askance’ as the leader of a double (literary) life. But there is one retort still left whereby to confound the non-existers and the dualists alike–I can produce both a “Kai Lung” and a “Max Carrados” between one pair of covers, and here they are.

E. B.

London, 1924.


IT was the custom of Ming Tseuen to take his stand at an early hour each day in the open Market of Nang-kau, partly because he was industrious by nature and also since he had thereby occasionally found objects of inconspicuous value which others had carelessly left unprotected over-night. Enterprise such as this deserved to prosper, but so far, owing to some apathy on the part of the fostering deities, silver had only come to Ming Tseuen in dreams and gold in visions. Yet with frugality, and by acquiring the art of doing without whatever he was unable to procure, he had supported himself from the earliest time he could remember up to the age of four short of a score of years. In mind he was alert and not devoid of courage, the expression of his face mild and unconcerned, but in stature he lacked the appearance of his age, doubtless owing to the privations he had frequently endured.

Next to Ming Tseuen on the one side was the stall of Lieu, the dog-butcher, on the other that of a person who removed corroding teeth for the afflicted. This he did with his right hand while at the same time he beat upon a large iron gong with his left, so that others in a like plight who might be approaching should not be distressed by hearing anything of a not absolutely encouraging strain. About his neck he wore a lengthy string of massive teeth to indicate his vigour and tenacity, but to Ming he privately disclosed that these were the fangs of suitable domestic animals which he had obtained to enlarge himself in the eyes of the passer-by. Ming in return told him certain things about his own traffic which were not generally understood.

Across the Way a barber was accustomed to take his stand, his neighbours being a melon-seller to the east, and to the west a caster of nativities and lucky day diviner. Also near at hand a bamboo worker plied his useful trade, an incense vendor extolled his sacred wares, a money-changer besought men to enrich themselves at his expense, and a fan-maker sang a song about the approaching heat and oppression of the day. From time to time the abrupt explosion of a firework announced the completion of an important bargain, proclaimed a ceremony, or indicated some protective rite, while the occasional passage of a high official whose rank required a chariot wider than the Way it traversed, afforded an agreeable break in the routine of those who found themselves involved. At convenient angles beggars pointed out their unsightliness to’ attract the benevolently inclined, story- tellers and minstrels spread their mats and raised their enticing chants, the respective merits of contending crickets engaged the interest of the speculative, and a number of ingenious contrivances offered chances that could not fail–so far as the external appearance went–to be profitable even to the inexperienced if they but persisted long enough. It will thus be seen that almost all the simpler requirements of an ordinary person could be satisfied about the spot.

Ming Tseuen’s venture differed essentially from all these occupations. In Nang-kau, as elsewhere, there might be found a variety of persons–chiefly the aged and infirm–who were suddenly inspired by a definite craving to perform a reasonable number of meritorious actions before they Passed Beyond. The mode of benevolence most esteemed consisted in preserving life or in releasing the innocent out of captivity, down even to the humblest creatures of their kind; for all the Sages and religious essayists of the past have approved these deeds of virtue as assured of celestial recognition. As it would manifestly be unwise for the aged and infirm to engage upon so ambiguous a quest haphazard–even if it did not actually bring them into conflict with the established law–those who were of Ming Tseuen’s way of commerce had sought to provide an easy and mutually beneficial system by which so humane an impulse should be capable of wide and innocuous expression. This took the form of snaring alive a diversity of birds and lesser beings of the wild and offering them for sale, with a persuasive placard, attractively embellished with wise and appropriate sayings from the lips of the Philosophers, inviting those who were at all doubtful of their record in the Above World to acquire merit, while there was still time, by freeing a victim from its bondage; and so convincing were the arguments employed and so moderate the outlay involved when compared with the ultimate benefits to be received, that few who were feeling in any way unwell at the time were able to resist the allurement.

Owing to the poverty of his circumstances, Ming Tseuen was only able to furnish his stall with a few small birds of the less expensive sorts, but, to balance this deficiency, he could always traffic at a certain profit, for so devoted to his cause were the little creatures he displayed, as a result of his zealous attention to their natural wants, that when released they invariably returned after a judicious interval and took up their accustomed stations within the cage again. In such a manner the mornings became evenings and the days passed into moons, but though Ming sustained existence he could add little or nothing to his store.

Among the crowd that passed along the Way there were many who stopped from time to time before Ming Tseuen’s stall to admire the plumage of his company of birds or to read the notice he exposed without any real intention of benefiting by the prospect he held out, and by long practice the one concerned could immediately detect their insincerity and avoid entering into a conversation which would inevitably be wasted. Thus imperceptibly the narration leads up to the appearance of Hya, an exceptionally graceful maiden of the house of Tai, whose willowy charm is only crudely indicated by the name of Orange Blossom then already bestowed upon her. Admittedly the part she had to play in this stage of Ming Tseuen’s destiny was neither intricate nor deep, but by adding to the firmness of his purpose when the emergency arose she unwittingly supplied a final wedge. No less pointed than when he first fashioned it is the retort of the shrewd Tso- yan: “Not what he is but how he became it concerns the adjudicating gods.”

Orange Blossom had more than once passed the stall of Ming Tseuen before the day when they encountered, and she had paused to observe the engaging movements of the band of feathered prisoners there, but for the re son already indicated he had not turned aside from whatever task he was then engaged on to importune her. When she spoke it was as though Ming for the first time then beheld her, and thenceforward his eyes did not forsake her face while she remained.

“How comes it, keeper of the cage, that your stall is destitute of custom,” she inquired melodiously; “seeing that it is by far the most delightful of them all, while less than an arrow’s flight away so gross a commerce as the baked extremities of pigs attracts a clamorous throng?”

“The explanation is twofold, gracious being,” answered Ming, resolving for the future to abstain from the food she thus disparaged, though it was, indeed, his favourite dish. “In the first place it is as the destinies ordain; in the second it is still too early after daybreak for the elderly and weak to venture forth.”

“Yet why should only the venerable and decrepit seek uprightness?” demanded the maiden, with a sympathetic gesture of reproach towards so illiberal an outlook. “Cannot the immature and stalwart equally aspire?”

“Your words are ropes of truth,” assented Ming admiringly, “but none the less has it appropriately been written, ‘At seventeen one may defy demons; at seventy he trembles merely at the smell of burning sulphur.’ Doubtless, then, it is your humane purpose–?” and partly from a wish to detain so incomparable a vision, and also because there was no reason why the encounter should not at the same time assume a remunerative bend, he directed her unfathomable eyes towards that detail of the scroll where the very moderate rates at which merit could be acquired were prominently displayed.

“Alas,” exclaimed Hya no less resourcefully, “she who bears the purse is by now a distance to the west. Happily some other time–”

“Perchance your venerated father or revered grand-sire might be rejoiced to grasp the opportunity–” he urged, but in the meanwhile the maiden had passed beyond his voice along the Way.

Ming would have remained in a high-minded contemplation, somewhat repaid to see, if not her distant outline, at least the direction in which she would progress, but almost at once the oleose Lieu was at his elbow.

“If,” remarked that earthly-souled person with a cunning look, “you should happen to possess influence with the one who has just resumed her path, it might mean an appreciable stream of cash towards your threadbare sleeve. The amount of meat that she and her leisurely and opulent connection must require cannot be slight, and there is no reason why we should not secure the co tract and divide the actual profit equally among us.”

“So far from that being the case,” replied Ming, in a markedly absent voice, “she to whom you quite gratuitously refer cannot even think of the obscene exhibits of your sordid industry without a refined shudder of polished loathing, and those of her house, though necessarily more robust, are’ doubtless similarly inclined. Reserve your carnivorous schemes for the gluttonous and trite, thou cloven-lipped, opaque-eyed puppy-snatcher.”

Instead of directing a stream of like abuse in turn, as he might logically have done, the artless-minded Lieu flung his arms about the other’s neck, and despite that one’s unceasing protests embraced him repeatedly.

“Thus and thus was it with this person also, in the days of his own perfervid youth,” declared the sympathetic dog-butcher when he ceased from the exertion. “She was the swan-like daughter of a lesser underling, and it was my custom to press into her expectant hand a skewer of meat when we encountered in the stress around the great door of the Temple...But that was in the days before a mountain dragon altered the river’s course: doubtless by now she is the mother of a prolific race of grandsons and my name and bounty are forgotten.”

“There is no possible similitude between the two,” declared Ming Tseuen indignantly. “The refinement of this one is so excessive that she shivers at the very thought of food, and the offer of a skewer of meat would certainly throw her into a protracted torpor.”

“How can that be maintained unless you have first made the essay?” demanded Lieu with undiminished confidence. “In these affairs it is often the least likely that respond phenomenally. Were it not that a notorious huckster is at this moment turning over my stock with widespread disparagement, I could astonish you out of the storehouse of my adventurous past. In the meanwhile, apply this salutary plaster to your rising ardour: could I have but shown five taels of silver, she whom I coveted was mine, and yet in the event she slipped hence from, me; but this one of thine is by my certain information a daughter of the affluent house of Tai, and a golden chain and shackle would not bridge the space between her father’s views and your own lowly station.”

“Her place is set among the more brilliant stars,” agreed Ming briefly. “Nevertheless,” he added with a new-born note of hope, “is it not written within the Books, ‘However far the heaven, the eye can reach it’?”

“Assuredly,” replied Lieu, pausing in his departure to return a step, “the eye, Ming Tseuen–but not likewise the hand.” And endeavouring to impart an added meaning to his words by a rapid movement of the nearer eyelid, the genial-witted dog- butcher went on his way, leaving Ming with an inward conviction that he was not a person of delicate perception or one with whom it would be well to associate’ too freely in the future.

It is aptly said, “After the lightning comes the thunder,” and events of a momentous trend were by no means lagging behind Ming’s steps that day. Even while he contended with the self- opinionated Lieu, in a distant quarter of the city a wealthy lacquer merchant, Kwok Shen by name, was seeking to shape afresh this obscure and unknown youth’s immediate fate, urged by the pressing mould of his own insistent need. “It is easier for a gnat to bend a marble tower than for a man to turn de tiny aside,” pronounced the Venerable, the Sagacious One, in the days when knowledge was, but how many now, in the moment of their test, acquiescently kowtow? Be that as it may, having perfected and rehearsed his crafty plans, Kwok Shen set out.

It was becoming dusk, and Ming Tseuen would shortly erect a barrier, when Kwok Shen drew near. As he approached the other glanced round, and seeing close at hand an elderly and not too vigorous merchant of the richer sort, he bowed obsequiously, for it was among these that his readiest custom lay. At the same time he recognised in Kwok Shen a stranger whom he had noticed observing him from a distance more than once on recent days, and undoubtedly this incident stirred an element of caution in his mind.

“May your ever-welcome shadow come to rest upon this ill-made stall,” remarked Ming Tseuen auspiciously, and looking at him keenly Kwok Shen halted there. “It only remains for my sadly concave ears to drink in the music of your excessive orders,” continued Ming. “Seven times seven felicities, esteemed.”

“Greeting,” replied Kwok Shen more concisely, though as an afterthought he passed the formal salutation, “Do your in-and-out taels overlap sufficiently?”

“‘A shop can be opened on pretension, but ability alone can keep it open,’” quoted Ming Tseuen in reply, although, not to create the impression of negligent prosperity, he added, “Yet the shrub one waters is ever more attractive than the forest cedar.”

“Admittedly,” agreed the merchant politely, for not having applied the leisure of his youth to an assimilation of the Classics, he felt himself becoming immersed in a stream beyond his depth and one that was carrying him away from the not too straightforward object of his quest. “Your literary versatility is worthy of all praise, but for the moment let us confine ourselves to the precise if less resonant terms of commercial usage,” he suggested. “Here is a piece of silver for your immediate profit. Thus our meeting cannot involve you in loss and it may quickly tend to your incredible advancement.”

“Proceed, munificence, proceed,” exclaimed the delighted Ming. “You speak a tongue that both the scholar and the witless can grasp at once,” and he transferred the money to his inner sleeve.

“Is there about this spot a tea-house of moderate repute, one affected neither by the keepers of the stalls nor by the most successful class of traders, where we can talk unheard and at our leisure?”

“Almost within sight the tea-house of the Transitory Virtues offers what you describe. Had the invitation come from me, a somewhat less pretentious one might have been chosen, but doubtless to a person of your transparent wealth–”

“Lead on,” said Kwok Shen consequentially. “The one beside you is not accustomed to divide a mouse among four guests,” and having thus plainly put beyond all question that the settlement did not affect himself, Ming was content to show the way.

The conversation that ensued was necessarily a slow and dignified proceeding. Kwok Shen had so much to conceal, and Ming Tseuen had so much to learn before he knew what it was prudent to admit, that for an appreciable period their intercourse was confined to pressing an interminable succession of cups of tea upon each other. Ming, however, had the advantage of his literary abilities, which enabled him to converse for an indefinite time upon a subject without expressing himself in any way about it, while Kwok Shen laboured under the necessity of having to achieve a specific issue.

The position, as presently outlined by the merchant, stood thus at its essential angles. He’ was, as he declared, a trader in gums and resins, and by a system of the judicious blending of his several wares at that stage his fortunes were assured. Being of an easy-going and abstemious nature, one wife alone had satisfied his needs, and she in turn had lavished all her care upon an only son, to whom the name of San had been applied. Stricken by an obscure malady this one had languished, and in spite of what every healing art could do had lately Passed Above:

Kwok Shen suitably indicated by means of his facecloth and a discarded plate that the effect of the blow upon himself had been calamitous, but when he spoke of the despair of the lesser one of his inner chamber his voice practically ceased to have any sound attached to it. Very soon every interest in life forsook her; she sank into an unnatural langour and not even the cry of a passing comb vendor or the sound of earthenware being shattered by the household slaves moved her to action. The investigation of skilled exorcists, those who had made the malignant humours their especial lore, all tended to one end: without delay another should be found to take the lost one’s place and thereby restore the immortal principles of equilibrity whose disturbance had unbalanced the afflicted mind. To this project she who was most concerned had at last agreed, stipulating, however, that the substitute should bear an exact resemblance to the departed San.

Beyond this point there could be no feasible concealment of the part that Ming Tseuen would be called upon to play, and that person’s alert mind began to prepare itself for the arrangement. He had already composed the set terms of his aged father’s anguish and chosen a suitable apophthegm to describe his broken- down mother’s tears when the words of Kwok Shen’s persuasive voice recalled him.

“At the moment of abandoning the search as hopeless, chance led this one’s dejected feet into the market here. When these misguided eyes first rested on your noble outward form, for a highly involved moment it was as though some ambiguous Force must have conveyed there the one we mourned, for his living presentment seemed to stand revealed. So complicated became the emotions that this person returned home at once, unable for the time to arrange his sequences adequately. Since then he has more than once come secretly and stood apart, observing from a distance, and each occasion has added a more imperviable lacquer to the surface of his first impression. In, the meanwhile, not from any want of confidence let it be freely stated, but solely in order to enlarge our knowledge of one so precious in our sight, a series of discreet inquiries have been made. Rest assured, therefore, Ming Tseuen, that everything connected with your orphaned life and necessitous circumstances is known. Lo, I have bared the recesses of my private mind; let your answering word be likewise free from guile.”

“How shall the drooping lotus bargain with the sender of the rain?” replied Ming Tseuen becomingly. “I put myself implicitly within your large and open hand...Any slight details of adjustment can be more suitably proposed after hearing the exact terms of your princely liberality.”

By this sudden and miraculous arisement it came to pass that Ming Tseuen was at once received into Kwok Shen’s Sumptuously appointed house as his adopted son. No less enchanted than bewildered by the incredible r semblance was she of the inner chamber when the moment came, and together the merchant and his wife sought to mould Ming’s habits to an even closer fiction of the one whose name he now assumed.

“At such a rebuke from menial lips he whom we indicate unnamed was wont to extend a contumacious tongue,” perchance it might on one occasion be, and, “His manner of pronouncing ‘tsze’ was thus,” upon another. All San’s toys and possessions accrued to Ming’s unquestioned use and he occupied the sleeping chamber of the one whose robes he daily wore. While kindly and indulgent on every other point, Kwok Shen imposed one close restraint.

“It is not seemly that a merchant having this and that to his position should be compelled to traffic for an heir among the garbage of the market stalls, though necessity, as it is said, can make a blind beggar see,” observed the one concerned. “It would be still more lamentable that this abasement should be known to those around. For that reason we shall shortly go hence into another place, where our past will be obscured; meanwhile let the four outer walls of this not incommodious hovel mark the limits of your discovering feet and within them hold no word of converse with any from outside whom you chance to meet. In this respect I speak along an iron rule that shall measure the thickness of a single hair of deviation.”

“Your richly mellow voice stays with me when your truly graceful form is absent on a journey,” replied Ming submissively. “As the renowned Hung Wu is stated to have said–”

“He who is wanting from our midst was not prone to express himself in terms of classical analogy,” corrected Kwok Shen graciously, and Ming dutifully refrained.

It was not long before Ming Tseuen had occasion to recall this charge, but as he was then in his own chamber with none other by, its obligation was not so rigorous as it might otherwise have seemed. He had drawn aside a stool that he might open a small shutter and look out, but the Way beneath was austere and void of entertainment, so that he would have retired again, when one somewhat younger than himself went by, propelling along his path an empty can.

“Ae ya, image-face!” he exclaimed, seeing Ming there and stopping to regard him acrimoniously. “So thou art still among us despite the pursuing demon, art thou? Where is the kite in the form of a vampire with outstretched wings for which I bargained with thee?”

“There is no kite such as you describe, nor have I ever bargained with you for it,” retorted Ming, who might require the kite for his own future use. “Further, it is not permitted that I should hold converse with another.”

“There is the kite, for these deficient hands have held the cord that stayed it, and touching the bargain we together ate the bag of dragon’s-eyes that were the price of its surrender. Haply you think, O crafty son of the ever two-faced house of Kwok, because you are fated shortly to Pass Hence, thus to avoid your just engagements?”

A breath of mistrust stirred certain doubts that lingered in Ming’s mind. He looked east and west along the Way and saw that none approached; from the house behind no disturbing sound arose.

“What air have you lately breathed,” he ventured amicably, “in that for some time past you have been absent from the city?”

“What pungent fish is this that you thus trail?” demanded the other scornfully. “Never was I beyond Nan kau since the day my mother had me. Doubtless you hope to lead my mind away from the matter of the vampire kite–may the dragon’s-eyes lie cankerous on thy ill-nurtured stomach!”

“Nay, but my heart is clear of any guile,” protested Ming resourcefully, “in token whereof here is a cake of honey, freely to thy hand. Yet how comes it that you know of the destiny awaiting this untimely one?”

“Why, it is the great talk among the inner chambers of this quarter of the city, and there is much concern as to the means by which the supple paint-peddler within will strive to avert the doom.”

“What do men say?” asked Ming, veiling his misgivings.

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