The Ambassador's Ring—Complete Story
—By H. Bedford-Jones
OUTSIDE Cheng-tu, in an almost royal villa, lived old Wu Liang. When Jim Hanecy learned that the ambassador's ring was in the hands of Wu Liang he ordered up a chair and went out to visit the old gentleman. Wu had the right to sign himself "M. A., Oxon," which means a good deal in China.
Somewhat to his mortification, Jim found that he was in a little over his depth. He was not strong on the classical stuff. Still, he was ashamed to admit that any Chinese could know more about Greece and Rome than he did, so he shut up and listened hard. Besides, he owed this deference to his host. Wu Liang, past seventy and very frail, was one of the greatest scholars and philologists in all China. Any dealer in the business would have written him a check for a million, gold, for his private collection of historic and authentic antiques.
Being straightforward—almost too much so for his own good—Jim Hanecy came direct with an offer to buy the ring. At this the old scholar only smiled gently and served tea. He gradually launched into a dissertation which even Hanecy, who knew a good deal, found very instructive.
"I suppose you know whence came the ring?" inquired Wu Liang.
Hanecy assented. He was one dealer who did not lie, even to buy things cheaply.
"It was recently taken from the grave of the Emperor Ling Ti," he said. "I understand that it came to you."
"True. Now, my friend, we shall speak frankly, for I know your reputation. It is one to be envied by other white men in our country. First, allow me humbly to show you the ring."
An attendant brought in a box lined with silk. From this box Wu Liang took another box. Four boxes in all there were, and In the innermost lay the ambassador's ring. Wu Liang handed it to the American.
"You want this," he said, "because of its historic interest. I want it because of its ethnologic interest, which is far greater. Examine it, and you will see."
Hanecy was already going over the ring with a magnifying glass.
It was a mounting of rather heavy, soft gold, recently cleansed. The stone, of green jasper, bore the intaglio carving of a lizard. Certainly no Chinese workmanship here. Then, examining the inside of the circlet where letters appeared, Hanecy uttered an exclamation of astonishment.
"THERE is some mistake, Wu Liang!" he ejaculated, looking up. This ring cannot have come from Ling Ti's tomb! These marks——"
"Are letters of the Roman alphabet yes." The old scholar smiled. "They are C. Pet. For., which I take to signify Caius Petronius Fortunatus. The lizard is a favorite Roman symbol of Minerva, representing the Logos, or divine wisdom. Let me outline my humble theory in regard to this ring. I beg that you will correct my unworthy remarks from your own superior knowledge."
Jim Hanecy, as aforesaid, held his peace and listened.
"We know," said old Wu, blinking through his spectacles, "that an ambassador from the Emperor Antoninus Pius came to Ling Ti of our eastern Han dynasty, about the year 166 of your calendar. This ring came from the grave of Ling Ti. So much, my friend, we know; upon this, we may predicate some interesting facts, hitherto unproven.
The name of this Roman ambassador was Caius Petronius Fortunatus, and this ring was probably a personal gift to our emperor. Now it clears up a greatly vexed point in the ethnologic history of our race. You will of course, recall that in China the transition from bronze weapons to iron was made suddenly and inexplicably about the time Ling Ti reigned."
Hanecy, who recalled nothing of the sort, assented mechanically. Later on he looked up the matter and found that Wu Liang was right. Old Wu pursued his topic with a complacency which nothing could have interrupted.
"We know from the work of Chung Chang-tung that armor with iron plates or laminae appeared in use about the year 200 a. d. He uses the term t'le cha; and as cha was formerly applied to bamboo writing tablets, we learn that the iron plates were of this same shape. Always this sudden ascendancy of iron has been a mystery—it is now a mystery no longer! It was this Roman embassy which introduced the Roman style of plate mail; also their two-edged sword, and the use of iron. You understand? This ring in your hand completes an ethnologic circle, accounts for deeply puzzling points in our racial history. Could I think of selling it? My friend, this is the most remarkable piece in my humble collection—it is one of the ethnologic wonders of the world, ranking with the Rosetta Stone or the Nestorian tablet of Si-an. Why, the British Museum would give me ten thousand pounds for it—if I wished to sell!"
"Correct," said Hanecy, not without a sigh as his hopes went glimmering. He returned the ring—the little circlet which in the world of science had more intrinsic value than chests of gold and jewels. But Wu pursued his subject with a zealot's fervor.
"Further, the crossbow appeared in China about the same time, and in the Yen Fan-lu, again, we are told that the old hide armor was useless against this new weapon. The inferences are plain, my friend—the Roman influence! None the less, I thank the ring for bringing you as a guest under my humble and insignificant roof."
"I'm not the only one after it," said Hanecy, gloomily. "There's Benson, also."
"I have heard of Mr. Benson. He, too, is an American—a famous dealer." The smile of old Wu was cherubic, but his eyes were not. "Is he a friend of yours?"
"He is not," said Hanecy, with curt emphasis.
A little later, Jim Hanecy left the villa, afoot. He preferred walking, especially when a stormy mood was on him. He was not particularly worried about any loss of dignity in native eyes.
"Ethnology be hanged!" he observed fiercely as he strode toward the city. "I hate like the devil to be beaten. There must be some decent way of getting that ring from old Wu. Benson, now, would probably wring his neck and take it—if he dared. What could I offer him for it? Not money, certainly."
It was fortunate for the existing state of surface peace that at this moment Jim Hanecy descried his rival. Benson was approaching in an open chair, and Hanecy concluded rightly that Benson was going to call on Wu Liang.
Benson ordered his bearers to halt and smiled at Hanecy. He was a soft-spoken man, this—a crafty, calculating dealer, who made few mistakes and never lost his head. He was hand in glove with all the vicious and crooked elements who might bring grist to his mill. Hanecy glared at him and would have passed by, but Benson's voice halted him.
"Hello, Hanecy! Been out to see old Wu, have you? Bid you get the ring?"
"You seem to know a lot about it," snapped Hanecy, his eyes steely and cold.
"I do," Benson chuckled. "I'm on my way to get it now. I have an order for it—ten thousand yen on delivery."
Hanecy's eyes narrowed, and he smiled angelically. Any one who knew him well would have left hurriedly about then. Benson did not know him very well personally.
"So?" drawled Jim. "One of your Jap millionaire clients, eh! I heard that you got your start when you sent the jade book of Shunchih to a Jap collector."
Benson reddened under this savage thrust. That Jade book is, among those who know, a fearfully delicate subject. When he responded there was a vicious snap to his voice.
"Hanecy, I'll not only get the ring. I'll get you! If——"
"So you've come out in the open at last, eh?" interrupted Hanecy joyfully.
He took three steps forward. Benson, who was a small man, knew better than to reach for a weapon. Hanecy lifted him out of the chair and kicked him—hard.
"You cur! I only wish you'd give me an excuse to put a bullet into you!"
Benson, who never lost his head, rose in silence and patted the dust from his clothes. Hanecy turned in disgust and strode toward the city. Benson looked after him, and one hand slipped toward a pocket—to pause half way there, checked by an inner warning. Men had tried before this to shoot Jim Hanecy in the back.
Hanecy did not look around. Benson climbed into his chair and ordered the bearers on.
That night Hanecy learned of the murder of Wu Liang.
JIM HANECY was stopping at the house of his friend Kiang, the fur merchant, and had full details of the murder from the number one boy. Some time during the early evening old Wu Liang had been hit on the head and killed—brutally. Many of his choicest treasures were missing. No one knew who had committed the crime. There was no clue of any sort.
Hanecy sent oft a note to Wu's secretary, and speedily learned that the ambassador's ring was among the missing objects. Of course, Hanecy had no doubt that Benson instigated the murder, but this was only the starting point of his troubles.
Unless he were to give up the ring as lost, he found himself facing a very stiff proposition. And Jim Hanecy prided himself on finishing whatever he started.
Under the new regime, each province of China is governed jointly by a civil magistrate and a military governor—in theory. In fact, the military mandarin maintains the army, does the work, and is quite independent of the feeble central government. The mandarin at Cheng-tu was not only very friendly with Benson, but he was open to every graft known. He had even invented a few new kinds of graft—quite a feat in China. Further, he was a famous collector of antiques on his own account, as are many high officials.
"The civil magistrate here keeps out of sight—no help from him," reflected Hanecy. "Benson is living at the mandarin's yamen. If I know what's good for me, I'd better stay away from there. Toptit just left town, confound him! May not be back for a week. If I could prove this murder on Benson, I'd gladly shoot the dog, but how the devil can I prove it? I'm no Sherlock Holmes. And I guess old Sherlock himself would take a shot in the arm and go to sleep over any such job as this.
Toptit, Hanecy's partner, had just left the city in pursuit of another relic of antiquity, and Hanecy considered that he was facing pretty big odds. But he had no intention of letting that ring go to Benson and a Japanese collector.
Next morning he interviewed his host, old Kiang, the merchant of furs, who knew all about the murder. He told Kiang frankly of his own interest in the case, described the ring, and asked for help. At first Kiang was not very responsive.
"I am a lonely old man and know nothing."
"But you have tong brethren, and the guilds are strong In Cheng-tu."
"Also, I am sad. Wu owed me an account of eight hundred Hang for fur. He has no heir, the state takes his property, and my bill will be unpaid."
Hanecy swore to himself at this news. All Wu's magnificent collection would go to the local mandarin, and Benson would get a fat slice of it!
"Your bill will be paid," said Hanecy, swallowing his wrath. "I will pay it. I will also pay to your tong one thousand dollars, gold of Shanghai, for proof of the murderer's identity. I will pay five thousand for the recovery of the ring, or one thousand for information leading to its recovery—by me."
At these agreeable words, the furwarmed up amazingly.
"That is something like!" he said approvingly. "The yamen offers a reward of fifty taels. Fifty taels for the murderer of the first scholar in China!" Kiang spit disgustedly. It is better to be a coolie and raise girl children to sell down the river than to be a scholar In this degenerate age."
"Further," said Hanecy, who, deep inside of him, was bitterly angered by the brutal murder of Wu Kiang, "the dead man was my friend, and his murder was due to the poor government here. Therefore, I will subscribe five thousand, silver, to your guild on the day the mandarin is removed from office and another Chang-chun installed in his place."
KIANG blinked delightedly. "I will report all this to my tong brethren," he said, and Hanecy knew that he had managed to start something.
These things were before the day of the Future Welfare Society and kindred organizations. Japanese influence was terribly strong at Peking, and was just starting the morphia traffic. The old statesmen of the empire were still ruling the new republic. Graft and corruption were rampant. The one strong power in all China was that of the tongs—the huikuan, or clubs, and the kung-so, or trade guilds. This power once exerted, was far-reaching and potent. Hanecy began to have some hope—not much, but some.
At 3 o'clock that afternoon his hopes went glimmering—went with a crash.
Hanecy was in an unsuspicious mood. His glow of virtuous wrath against Benson had for the moment dissipated his natural caution. At 3 o'clock he was on his way across town, afoot, as was his custom, to the temple where his partner lodged. He was hoping to find that Toptit had returned to the city.
In the Street of Ten Thousand Excellent Virtues, a foul and narrow lane that led toward the river, Hanecy was abruptly aroused to danger. At the street corner ahead appeared a file of provincial soldiery from the mandarin's yamen. A cry of "foreign devil!" from behind drew his attention to other soldiers crowding in from the rear. Trapped!
Jim Hanecy paused to ask no questions. Time enough for explanations later! That one glance showed him there was no avenue of escape. Characteristically, he made one for himself. Putting his shoulder to the nearest door, he burst it open and vanished into the darkness.
Out in the Street of Ten Thousand Excellent Virtues arose wild turmoil, confusion of running soldiers, screaming town folk. A pious Mohammedan who was on his way to the mosque was stabbed by somebody. A religious riot followed promptly, and prominent in the affair were two minor members of the kung-so, or guild, of fur merchants. Presently the tumult. The soldiers were not certain where Hanecy had vanished, so began a house-to-house search. Meantime, the officer in charge of the party proclaimed that the foreign devil had murdered the scholar, Wu Liang, according to evidence presented at the yamen.
The search was made thorough, but the foreign devil was not found.
A wealthy Chinese dwelling, facing south for luck, roughly consists of four buildings around a courtyard.
Benson, who was installed as a guest in the dwelling of the local mandarin,one of the hou-fang, or back rooms. In this instance the rear wall of the dwelling backed up against the grounds of a small temple, giving a very pleasant outlook by day. Now it was evening, however. Benson had closed the paper shutters and lighted candles and had brought forth a flask of Scotch whisky with which to regale the mandarin in strict privacy.
The two men sat in the room, the Chang-chun sipping his liquor appreciatively, and discussed the situation.
"There's no doubt that Hanecy murdered old Wu," said Benson firmly. "I hate to think it, even though we were not friends, but the evidence is clear."
The sleek, fat features of the mandarin smiled in oily complacency.
"CLEAR, indeed!" he murmured. He held up a pudgy hand and checked off on his fingers. "Two Manchu bannermen of the red banner, going home to their quarter outside the west gate, saw Mr. Hanecy come from the direction of Wu's villa in the evening. He carried a small bundle. Three countrymen, hastening to reach the city before the gates closed for the night, saw Mr. Hanecy leaving the villa stealthily—saw Wu's secretary letting him out the side gate. He carried a bundle; also a short and heavy club, which he flung away."
"Has the club been found?" queried Benson frowningly.
"Not yet, I regret to say," was the soft response.
"The secretary was examined this afternoon and denied his guilt until he was brought to know the infinite mercy of the old Buddha—then he confessed. He aided Mr. Hanecy In the murder."
"By the way," said Benson, "I'd like to ask that secretary a few questions."
"Justice is swift," smirked the Chang-chun blandly. "He was executed at sunset. The evidence is clear and without a flaw, is it not?"
Benson assented, compressing his lips in restraint. Perhaps Benson, who was no fool, suspected that all this evidence of witnesses was remarkably complete. He must have realized that Wu's secretary had been tortured into a confession and then summarily executed with a really astonishing swiftness of justice. But he assented.
"You did not see Wu this afternoon?" inquired the mandarin.
"No." Benson flushed. "He refused to have me admitted."
A slight detail, this—even a humiliating detail! Benson never dreamed how important it was.
"If Mr. Hanecy is apprehended," went on the mandarin, sipping his whisky, "you think the evidence will warrant my sending him to Chung-king for trial before his consul?"
"duty is clear," said Benson, "I will witness the evidence. Besides, America will never bother you."
"Yes. Every one knows that our sister republic bothers no one. If Hanecy were a British subject, of course, it would be very different. Now, I have sealed the villa of the unfortunate Wu Liang, and his effects have become the property of the state. In a few days we will go over this collection, and certain objects may be sold to you."
"The ring was not found?" inquired Benson. "Did you get a description of it?"
The mandarin smiled blandly. On his finger was a gold circlet adorned with a green jasper, in which was cut a lizard. It glowed dully against the cup of aubergine porcelain.
"The ring was described by the secretary," he answered. "It was a ring of bronze, in which was an oval red jade inscribed with the seal of Ling Ti. Undoubtedly it will be found on Mr. Hanecy, and I shall turn it over to you as a gift of friendship."
Benson, who had never seen the ambassador's ring—since he had not been admitted to Wu's villa—nodded his satisfaction and poured more Scotch into the cup of aubergine.
The paper screen of shutter that closed the windows behind the mandarin's back moved very slightly, so slightly that neither man observed the movement.
"This is truly a liquor blessed by the virtues of heaven!" said the yellow man, with a suave significance. "If there were more of it in the world—well, it would be worth much!"
"As much," queried Benson, who had craftily introduced this usquebaugh to the taste of his host, "as much as the treasure of Wu Liang's collection?"
"TRULY, it would bear great influence, my friend! Is it not written of the great master in the Ch'un Ch'iu that honor is more worthy than much profit?"
"If you will pardon my absence," and Benson rose, smiling. "I will look through my boxes. Possibly I could find a bottle or two of this liquor which might be worthy your acceptance."
The mandarin acquiesced eagerly enough. Benson left the room—his boxes were stored in another of the rear chambers.
Holding up against a candle that delicate shell of aubergine porcelain, the mandarin smiled. The ring was very pretty on his finger; also, it was tremendously valuable. Far above such value, however, this suave official ranked the beautiful fashion in which he was tricking this astute white man—tricking him to his very face!
How enraged Benson would have bean to know that this ring, of ordinary appearance—this ring on the finger of the mandarin, negligently waved under his very eyes—was the ambassador's ring! Meantime, Benson's greed was helping greatly to urge on the fate of Jim Hanecy, that other foolish foreign devil, whom the mandarin greatly wanted out of the way. The witnesses were well primed, the confession of Wu's secretary was well signed and in order—and the secretary was dead. The two soldiers who had stolen into the old scholar's house, who had murdered him and stolen many of his precious objects, were dead also. The mandarin had seen to that, very promptly, on delivery of the goods.
So, sipping at the whisky, the mandarin smiled and blinked in complacent satisfaction.
Behind him, the paper screen moved, noiselessly, and was pushed aside. Two saffron figures, nearly naked, dropped into the room. Before the astonished mandarin could turn, one iron hand clamped about his throat, another clamped on his two flabby wrists. He was held prostrate, silent, agonized.
One of the two saffron figures held up against the nearest candle a thin sliver of steel, the shape and size of a hatpin; then he leaned forward over the helpless official. A voice murmured softly:
"It is written that a magistrate without honor is more vile than the turtle. The spirit of Wu Liang awaits you in the hall of judgment, base one!"
The saffron figure came erect and shoved back into his black, twisted hair the thin skewer of steel. His mate loosened the dead man. The mandarin lay huddled, without spot of blood, without visible token of death except the fright in his fat face. The exact manner of his death had been sudden, sharp, invisible; very interesting from a scientific viewpoint, but hardly suitable to detailed description.
One saffron figure dropped something into the flask of whisky, refilled the aubergine cup, and poured liquor into the dead man's mouth. The other figure took the dead hand and removed the gold ring, slipping it under his waistcloth. Both figures lifted the mandarin to a sitting posture, clamped his fingers about the half-emptied cup, left him drooped over in a huddled position as though he had died while drinking.
Then the two saffron figures flitted to the window again, silently. The paper screen was moved back into place. If two nearly naked men vanished into the garden of the temple, only the moonlight could tell.
IT WAS nearly midnight when Jim Hanecy, sitting over a chessboard with his friend Kiang, the fur dealer, was checkmated for the last time. At this instant a gong throbbed somewhere. Kiang arose and excused himself to answer a summons.
Hanecy yawned. He had been extricated very neatly from his afternoon's predicament by two minor members of the kung-so to which Kiang belonged. They had smuggled him home again to the merchant's house, where he had learned that the yamen was seeking him—that he was accused of the murder of Wu Liang on overwhelming evidence.
Hanecy wanted to go out and fight, but Kiang gently counseled the chessboard instead. And, being wise in some ways, Hanecy had assented.
Now, Kiang came back into the room, smiling to himself.
"There have been interesting happenings at the yamen," he said blandly, stuffing some tobacco into his long pipe and sucking at it. "Your compatriot, Benson, gave the Chang-chun poisoned whisky. The mandarin is dead. Benson escaped, has probably fled by way of the river; Everything is in confusion at the yamen. I have just had a full report from a tong brother who is to be trusted."
Hanecy came to his feet with a startled oath.
"What? Benson wouldn't do that, Kiang! He's rotten, but he'd never poison——"
The fur merchant waved his hand gently.
"The evidence was very clear, I understand. I have no doubt that Benson realized the evidence was overpowering against him. Still, he has escaped, and will probably get away. You would not be sorry to have him gone, I think?"
Hanecy sat down, frowning savagely.
"Look here—I wouldn't have you murder Benson, just because I don't like him!"
"No. I think that he will get away," repeated Kiang, smoothly.
Here was an admission, practically an open confession. Hanecy looked at the fur dealer with unconcealed admiration. It was only this morning that he had mentioned the affair to Kiang at all. Now, within a few hours, the gentlemen of the trade guild had written a new leaf in the history of Sze-chuan province!
"Kiang, I'll have to hand it to you!" said Hanecy, beginning to understand a good many things. "You had your men watching me all day, eh? And this business tonight at the yamen—was that accident or design? The mandarin's death, I mean."
The fur merchant sucked reflectively at his pipe.
"Ah! A combination of both," he answered, smiling slightly.
"But why?" Hanecy looked helpless and perplexed. "I've no objections to the gentleman passing to his ancestors, or to Benson being sent packing to the coast—but why? I thought you chaps were strong for justice——"
Kiang uttered a dry and cackling laugh.
"My friend, you were certain that Benson murdered Wu Liang. Benson was certain, it appears, that you had done so. As a matter of fact, it was the mandarin who had Wu Liang murdered!"
"You have proof of this?" demanded Hanecy, eagerly.
"The best in the world," and Kiang quietly handed him the ambassador's ring. "This was taken from the finger of the mandarin."
Hanecy looked at the circlet with its green jasper stone. Only two days had elapsed since he first saw it; in those two days it had brought death to many men. Here lay the thing in his hand—he slipped it on his finger reflectively.
"See here!" Hanecy looked at the fur merchant reflectively. "I would like to buy the collection of Wu. Do you think that it might be arranged when the new mandarin is appointed here? Would your tong have any influence toward that end?"
"It might be arranged," said Kiang. "Has the affair been concluded thus far to your entire satisfaction? Is the ring the same one you desired?"
Hanecy took the hint, and got out his pocketbook. "I've no kick to register," he said, and grinned.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1949, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 73 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.
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