The Emperor's Amulet
The Emperor's Amulet—Another Ling Ti Story
JIM HANECY stood in the street outside the house of mourning and inspected his enemy with a prim smile.
"Smallpox," he said curtly. "Going in with me, Benson?"
Benson, who was one of the biggest curio dealers and agents in China, shook his head. Only the glitter in his short-sighted eyes betrayed his vivid hatred of Jim Hanecy. He was a rather small man, soft-spoken, very deadly, allied with all the forces of graft and evil in China.
"The game isn't worth the candle," he answered.
Hanecy regarded him with that same thin, dangerous smile on his bronzed hatchet face. The two men stood In a side street of Cheng-tu. Somewhere in or near this city, 1500 miles from the coast, were a number of objects recently taken from the grave of the Emperor Ling Ti of the Han dynasty—objects which, from an historical and artistic standpoint of value, were worth their weight in rubies to any collector or museum.
One of those objects had been in the possession of the man who had just died of smallpox.
"One word, Benson," said Hanecy slowly. "You're a clever devil. The mandarin here is working for you. You'd cheerfully pay high to have me killed. Now, Benson, you're too slick to give me any excuse for coming to you and putting a bullet into your ugly hide—but you look out! All I want is the excuse!"
Benson produced a cigarette and lighted it. He knew that Jim Hanecy would shoot him if given an excuse—Hanecy had a reputation for keeping his word—but Benson was a man who never lost his head. So now he refused to let himself be snared into saying anything. Hanecy was only talking from suspicion, anyway.
"You have gone into partnership with Toptit, haven't you?" Benson inquired casually.
"I have!" snapped Hanecy. "And we mean to get the whole Ling Ti outfit."
Benson smiled, waved his cigarette with an assurance that maddened Hanecy, and responded:
"There's one piece you won't get—nobody will get it! That's the piece in there, the tongue-amulet of Ling Ti. It's been lost. The man is dead."
"You're such a cursed liar I'd hate to believe you," said Hanecy sourly.
"Then go in and ask."
HANECY turned on his heel and strode into the house of mourning. Benson glanced after him with a vivid gleam in his eyes, then shrugged his shoulders and walked away.
A few moments later Jim Hanecy came from the house, frowningly. After all, Benson had told him the truth—probably had discovered it through the local mandarin or from official sources. The emperor's amulet had disappeared some days previously while the man lay sick. Now the man was dead and the amulet was gone.
"Touch luck," murmured Hanecy. "Old Toptit will throw a fit when he finds it's been lost. One of Benson's crooks may have stolen it—but I rather think not."
He slowly retraced his steps through the crowded streets to the house of old Kiang, the fur merchant, where his friend and partner, Toptit, awaited him. So far as the emperor's amulet was concerned, there seemed to be a complete checkmate.
In the Hsuo-tau-kai, or street of bookshops, a naked little yellow boy was playing with a peculiar object which he had picked from a garbage pile in the gutter.
This plaything appeared to be a dead cicada, about two inches in length, of a beautiful transparent leaf-green. The boy had inserted a cord through a hole in the nose, and drew the cicada after him by the cord. It was a very pretty plaything.
A poor scholar, who was earnest enough but more ignorant than his title justified, was sitting in contemplation when the boy passed him. Ignorant or clever, scholars are scholars the world over. This yellow man with the horn spectacles saw what the boy was playing with and realized that no real cicada would last ten minutes at such a game; also, that this cicada seemed to be petrified or carved from stone. He called to the boy, and the cicada changed hands for a matter of two coppers—cash.
Examining his purchase, the scholar found that the cicada really was carved from stone—a stone resembling jade, but like no jade that he had ever seen. On the belly were cut two characters of some ancient script which he could not read. Determining that it was a luck-piece, the scholar tucked it into his girdle and took his accustomed way to the south gate, toward the temple of the famous minister, Chu-ko Liang, where he was wont to study the two memorials of this great man—the memorials which have become classics and sources of political inspiration to China.
Now, there were a number of things about this cicada which the poor scholar did not know and probably never would know, since he was a mere learner of words and not an ethnologist.
In ancient China a body was not embalmed. Instead, it was stuffed with jade—for jade was the essence of the yang, or male principle of the universe, which would keep the body from corruption by the yin or female forces of the earth. This at least was the theory. Even in the Han period, also, there was a belief in the resurrection of the dead, and hence into the mouth of the corpse was slipped a bit of jade carved in the shape of a cicada. The cicada, like the beetle of the Egyptians, was a symbol of the resurrection, and the jade cicada laid on the tongue of a dead man was an amulet to guide him to the new life.
Leaving the south gate, the scholar passed on to the group of walled temples just outside the city. Entering these by the main gateway on the south, the scholar quickly went to the third and innermost gateway and found himself in the temple of the great general and minister.
WITH all the awful concentration of a scholar, he ignored the gardens, the lake, the harp arbor: he ignored the hall, with its bronze drums brought by Chu-ko Liang from the Burmese conquests, with its magnificent pictures and poems left there by great artists through hundreds of years as memorials. Instead of these things, the scholar seated himself before the stones of the outer walls, upon which were inscribed the political testaments of the statesman, and set himself to study and contemplate and reflect. The scholar was doubtless improving his soul, but he was killing a tremendous amount of time in doing it.
Some time afterward the pangs of hunger apprised the scholar that he had not eaten. His lunch money had gone to buy a luck-piece. He took the cicada from his girdle and inspected it critically; in view of theluncheon, he did not now care so much for the thing.
A sound of clinking coins sharply roused the scholar. He glanced up to see a man at his side, gazing at the cicada and making money-talk. The inference was obvious. The man was a merchant—an old fellow with wispy gray mustaches and bleary eyes. His name was Wang, and he dealt in books; also, he was learned in many things—a reader of his own wares.
Wang bought the cicada for a small string of cash. He bought it hastily without daring to show his eagerness or to examine it very closely, and then shuffled off with the cicada clutched in his palm; while the scholar departed to seek substantial nourishment.
Two minutes later Wang paused outside the main entrance of the temple and opened his clenched fist. The very touch of the cool, sweet stone thrilled him; the feel of the wondrous polished patina against his sweaty old palm was an ecstasy. He paid no regard to the fact that other men were all around, coming and going. He was immensely proud of what he had just bought, and was in avid haste to confirm his first hasty impression.
He looked at the green stone insect resting in his hand. He noted the clear quality of the stone, its leaf-green color, the deftness with which the artist had made dark spots nestle like natural insect colorings in the wings of the cicada. Wang, who had studied much, knew that this was not the ordinary jade, fetched in from Turkestan by the hundreweight. It was genuine Chinese jade, such as had not been found in China except very rarely for about 2,000 years.
"Han yu!" The words escaped his lips in rapt admiration—as much for his own cleverness as for the stone's beauty. "Han yu! Jade of the Hans! A tongue amulet from a grave!"
He turned over the cicada to examine the two ideographs on its belly, but they were beyond his ability to read. Thus, examining his find, he did not see that two men had heard his exclamation and had exchanged a swift glance. Han yu, to any native who knows, has much the same significance that "Free gold, by George!" would have to an old-time California mining camp. In other words, it is apt to start something.
Old Wang tucked away the cicada, his wispy mustaches, and shuffled toward the city gate with a rapt smile on his silly old face. Behind him followed two men, who, by their costume, were evidently members of the provincial soldiery maintained by the local mandarin. By their faces they were bandits. Which amounted to exactly the same thing.
THESE two soldiers knew that a white man was the guest of the mandarin, and they had heard a great deal of talk about Han yu and other things. They knew that the white man was one of the largest dealers in antiques on the coast, and was thick as a brother with the mandarin. As to the mandarin himself, they were far too well acquainted with him to have any fears on the score of future punishment.
Old Wang, taking the shortest cuts home, plunged into the Street of Ten Thousand Bright Flowers. This was an evil little alley occupied by crowded tenements. It was at the moment deserted except for a few children playing in the garbage. Now was accomplished a mysterious and startling thing. Beyond doubt, Wang, the bookseller, had entered that alley at one end, but he did not come out at all! Instead of Wang, two soldiers came out at the other end, moved a few feet distant to a patch of shade, and squatted down. One of them replaced a knife in his sleeve, the other handed him some clinking coins.
"There is half the money."
"Ah! And the Han Yu?"
"That is in my girdle. Let us not go hastily about this. If we offer it to the white man——"
"He will buy it. He deals in such things."
"True." The more astute robber scratched his nose reflectively. "But, remember, there is a mandarin in the yamen. Beyond doubt, the mandarin will take all the money that the white man should pay us."
"Ah! Quite true," assented the other. "Stay! Is there not another white man living at the Tu-kung temple?"
The first bandit nodded and grinned.
"Go to that shop across the street and buy some wax. Then come back."
The second man obeyed, keeping his eye carefully on his comrade.
When he returned with the wax the first man took it, divided it into two portions, and into each portion firmly pressed the belly side of the cicada. He gave his comrade one of the portions.
"Go you to the yamen. Seek the white man, tell him that I have this Han yu, and will meet him just outside the south gate if he wishes to buy it. Meantime, I will go to the other white man, tell him that you have the Han yu, and get an offer on it. They will see from the two characters what it represents. The one who offers most will get it."
The two mulled over this scheme for half an hour. There were no flaws in it when they had finished.
With his wax impression, one soldier betook himself to the mandarin's yamen, not far from the south gate. Here he obtained audience with Benson—a private audience—and gave his very good reason for keeping the mandarin out of business. He told all about the cicada, which, according to his story, had been found in the belly of a fish taken from the river, and bought by his comrade, who was waiting. He described it exactly, and Benson began to get excited. The thing might really be a Han jade.
But when Benson saw the wax impression he had hard work to keep his jubilation from showing. The two characters he recognized instantly as the name of Ling Ti. This leaf-green cicada was the amulet of the emperor—the amulet that had been lost!
HANECY, reclined at his ease in a room of the Tu-kung temple, where his partner, Toptit, was domiciled, was in one of his rarely talkative moods. Toptit was pretending to write more poetry, but was in reality jotting down what Haneey said—for he knew that Hanecy had been long in the land and was wise in many ways.
"There are several kinds of antique dealers, Toptit. One kind gets stuff on consignment, much of it from me; he has a goodly patter about Kien Lung, Han periods and so forth. He doesn't know that there were three distinct Han periods—and his customers think he's a wonder.
"Then there's the royal ass, who comes to China every three or four years and buys what I have stored up. He goes back home and shoots the bull about how he picked these things up here and there—gets good prices, too. He's usually called an authority. He's the one who gets up auction catalogues and refers any old bronze to Shang or Chou, especially if it has a date. He doesn't know that ancient date marks spells fraud.
"Then there's the man who has a firm, and who spends his time here picking up stuff. He knows the game down to the ground, has every millionaire collector spotted and on his strings, and gets ten thousand for the right netsuke or snuff bottle. He's on the level with his customers, although he'd just as soon steal his statue from the National Museum at Peking if he had to get it that way——"
"Ah!" said Toptit with interest. "That's Benson."
"That's Benson," said Hanecy, grinning. "So you're going down-river in the morning, are you?"
Toptit nodded soberly. "Yes. I'm going to trail down some more of this Ling Ti stuff. It seems certain that the emperor's amulet is lost, so we'd better transfer our attention to the other things. You think Benson will trail me "
"No—but you'll be trailed," said Hanecy drily. He yawned and rose. "Well, so long! I'll be around in the morning to see that you get off safe."
He left the little temple of the eighth-century poet and patriot. As he was leaving the gateway of the large temple in whose grounds stood the Tu-kung-tsz, he was halted by a man whose garb showed him to be one of the soldiery from the local yamen. The soldier did not know that there were two white men there, so he naturally addressed Hanecy.
"Heavenborn, we have heard that you buy old jade, especially Han yu," said the man humbly enough. "My comrade and I bought from a fisherman a jade which he took from the belly of a river fish. It is of green stone——"
He described the cicada minutely, and showed the wax impression that he carried.
"Ah!" said Hanecy. "And where is this green insect?"
"My comrade Is keeping it, heavenborn. His duties detain him, and I promised to bring you if you would care to see it."
Hanecy reflected. He knew that the local mandarin was hand in glove with Benson, and he rather suspected some trick here, some trap to ensnare him. "Still, what matter? That wax impression showed the name of Ling Ti in characters unmistakably Han, and if Benson had secured the thing Hanecy was perfectly willing to match wits and take it away from him. Risk did not bother him appreciably.
"Where is your comrade now?" demanded Hanecy.
"Near the south gate, heavenborn."
They walked on together, Hanecy a little in the lead. To the city gate was a comfortable walk, although a pleasant one—by the Lohan bridge and the river road, past the ancient temples. The afternoon was wearing on. As they passed the walled precincts of Chu-ko Liang's temple a poor scholar came from the entrance and plodded slowly after them, blinking dreamily through his spectacles, his mind lost in contemplation of the noble maxims which Chu-ko-Ling had transmitted to posterity.
Hanecy, as he strode along, was certain of crooked work somewhere. This cicada had come from no fish belly; it was the one lost by the smallpox victim. How had the soldiers obtained it? Through Benson, of course. It was the scented lure to some fine trap.
"Good enough," thought Hanecy confidently. "If they want to set a trap, I'll spring the trap and grab the bait. And I only hope Benson shows up in person."
He was utterly wrong in his suspicions, of course. In this instance he was being made the butt of a fate which was inexorable and insatiate.
THEY came to the high gate, a narrow entrance in the high walls, where ideographed advertisements and bandit rewards were pasted on the stones. Many folk were going in and out past the loafing guards. The soldier glanced around, saw that his comrade had not yet arrived with Benson, and touched the arm of Hanecy.
"Heavenborn, come with me to a place of waiting. Then I will return and speak with my comrade. It is necessary to avoid suspicion from the others——"
"Very well," said Hanecy grimly, thinking of the trap.
He followed the soldier to a house a hundred yards distant. His pistol ready, he entered and was guided to a vacant room. This was a gambling house, he perceived. His guide seemed to be known here. Once in the room, the soldier asked bluntly what the cicada was worth to Hanecy. The American silently produced a hundred taels in notes of the local government.
"I will get the stone from my comrade, heavenborn," eagerly said the soldier, and departed. Hanecy sat waiting, pistol in hand, but nothing happened.
Meanwhile had come to the gate the poor scholar, mumbling to himself the maxims of Chu-ko-Liang. At the gateway he paused, glancing over he papers posted on the wall. Among them was news of the murder of the prominent bookseller Wang, whose body had been found shortly after noon in the Street of Ten Thousand Bright Flowers. There was a reward for the murderer, offered by the family of Wang, of five hundred silver dollars—ta-yang-chien.
The poor scholar read these notices with gaping jaw. All thought of the wise maxims was stricken from his mind. He realized that Wang had been murdered en route home from the temple, after buying that green cicada from him. Aghast and incredulous, the scholar stood there gaping at the notices like a man dazed, forgetful of all around him. His single-track mind was centered wholly upon Wang, the green cicada and the murder.
Thus stood the situation when Benson, accompanying the soldier who had summoned him, came from the nearby yamen to buy the emperor's amulet.
Hanecy's soldier, with the green cicada in his hand, stood inside the city gate and waited patiently. He had Hanecy safe in case Benson refused to give as much as a hundred taels. When he saw his comrade approach with Benson in tow he made a sign that all was well.
At this instant, a crucial instant in Fate's plan, the poor scholar came through the gate, driven as a loiterer by the soldiers.
Benson followed his guide to the soldier who awaited them. The latter silently opened his hand and showed the green stone, and Benson's eyes widened.
"How much, excellency?" asked the soldier. "This is a true Han yu, as you can see——"
Benson took the green cicada, held it up, examined it closely. Six feet away the poor scholar came to a dead halt, gaping at the stone in astounded recognition. He was unobserved by the three, for folk were eddying all around him, staring curiously at the white man.
Then from the scholar burst a chattering shout:
"Help! These are the men who murdered the bookseller Wang in the Street of Ten Thousand Bright Flowers! That green-stone insect——"
Provincial soldiers who vary their legitimate occupation with a spice of banditry on the side are by no means fools. Benson was no fool either, but he was caught by surprise. As he glanced up at the sudden shout, one of the two men snatched the stone from his hand; the other checked the scholar's outburst with a knife-thrust.
Immediately the street was flung into mad confusion. The poor scholar lay gasping out his life, while above him trampled a wild throng. Murder and sudden death hovered close. The only persons in the crowd who actually knew what was going on were the two soldiers. And when Benson tried to find them, furious at what had happened, they were gone.
THE soldiers straightened out the crowd in short order, but there was none to explain. The poor scholar lay dead. Benson shrugged his shoulders at questions, pretending he did not understand. A good many precious minutes were wasted while the officer in charge of the gate was eliciting from the throng just what had taken place. Finally it was realized that the scholar had been wantonly murdered by a soldier, and from the description the men recognized their comrade. The officer reflected a while, then remembered that his men were great patrons of the nearby gambling house.
"Two of you will remain with me to watch the gate," he said. "The rest of youMa Jen's gambling house and the nearby dwellings. The murderer has fled there for hiding."
In this, by chance, the officer was quite correct.
Sitting in the empty room, with only a brick bed and a jar that smelled of sam shu to keep him company, Jim Hanecy waited for something to happen. He felt so certain that he had walked into a trap of Benson's devising that he was anxious to get busy. His nerves were on a hair-trigger edge.
Not a sound reached him. He guessed that at this time of day every one in the gambling joint was asleep. A slow and insidious doubt that this could be a trap gradually rose in his mind. That soldier had lied, of course, but had not told the sort of lies Benson would have instigated. Benson was too clever to hand out that fish-belly stuff——
A scurry of hastening feet in the passage. Hanecy's hand slid toward his armpit, then paused.
"By the blessing of the five bats!" said the voice of the soldier who had guided him. "Here is the place—and there is no time to lose if we are to carry our heads safe out of the city! Take the money and be satisfied, fool!"
Another voice grumbled something inaudible. The door was flung open. Hanecy rose as the two soldiers entered and closed the door. They were panting, their eyes showed fierce excitement, the hand of the one was red with hastily wiped blood.
Hanecy perceived that much had been going on somewhere, but he was too wise to ask any incautious questions.
"Here is my comrade, heavenborn," said the first soldier hurriedly. "He has the green stone. Give us the money and let us depart."
Hanecy extended the sheaf of notes. The soldier tucked them away, then turned with an angry gesture to his comrade.
"The green stone, quickly! Give him the Han yu!"
"First give me my money," scowled the other. "Besides, how do I know the money is good? It is not silver—"
"Oh, turtle's offspring! Can I not be trusted to know good yin-piao? Here, take your share. But, by the wu fu, give him the jade quickly——"
The scowling, hesitant bandit produced the green cicada. Hanecy took it and slipped the stone into his pocket. His lips clenched grimly. What went into that pocket of his did not come out easily. He was still suspicious, watchful, very alert. All this looked too good to be true.
The first soldier was turning to the door when his comrade, who had been examining the notes given him, uttered an angry exclamation.
"Here, vile one! There are only thirty taels here—the price was one hundred! Where are the other twenty, thief?"
As he spoke, a knife leaped out into his hand. The first soldier uttered a curse and tugged at his ragged girdle. A revolver showed in his band and an explosion filled the room with black powder fumes.
Close upon that explosion camesharp, brutal reports. Hanecy had no doubt whatever that this was a mock quarrel, designed to catch him off guard and finish him. When the knife showed, his hand was at the butt of his automatic. When the revolver came out he ducked across the room and fired twice.
He did not need to look to verify the result.
A bedlam of trampling feet, shrieks, shouts and curses filled the building. Hanecy did not open the door, but darted to the window that lighted the room and dropped into an alley.
"I believe I was wrong, after all," reflected Hanecy. "I don't think Benson was responsible for this affair in the least, to give the devil his due! He would never have let that amulet get into my hands. The facts probably are that those two bandits back there framed up a game to rob and murder me—I expect they got the amulet by killing some one else. I don't think I need waste much pity on them."
Anybody who knew Hanecy would have smiled at this last, for Hanecy was too strictly an apostle of efficiency to waste any sympathy whatever. He lived very largely by risking his neck, and he desired to go on living for a long time.
As soon as Hanecy emerged from the rabbit-warren of alleys into a street he perceived that the quarter was boiling with excitement. The government buildings were close by, so he made his way to the yamen and asked questions as he went.
From those around Hanecy learned that a poor scholar had been wantonly murdered near the south gate and that search was being made for the murderers, who were known. This gave him no clue, for he did not connect the matter with his two soldiers, so he determined to stick around and see what happened next. He called an empty sedan chair, gave the bearers a coin, and told them to wait for him. Then he sauntered toward the yamen.
Presently a surge of the crowd gave way before a group of soldiers, who bore two dead men in their midst. These were seen to be two of the yamen guard, and the bodies were placed on exhibition. There was new excitement when a proclamation was brought forth and posted above the bodies.
Hanecy read that proclamation, standing back in the crowd. It was to the effect that the ways of the gods were inscrutable and very profound. These two murderers had fled to a room in the gambling house of Ma Jen, where they had quarreled. One of them had drawn a revolver and shot one cartridge. That one bullet had, by the inevitable laws of justice, pierced both the murderers—directed by the hand of the gods, that same bullet had shot each man between the eyes!
In evidence of this supernatural fact, the revolver was displayed.
Hanecy turned away, got out of the crowd, and climbed into his waiting sedan chair. He directed the bearers to the house of Kiang, the fur dealer, on the other side of the city, and then sat back with a smile on his lips.
"Great is the justice of the mandarin!" he murmured, and patted the emperor's amulet with much satisfaction. "I don't understand all this—but I'm satisfied."
And he tucked some tobacco into his brier, chuckling to himself.