The Ironmaster of Chian Fu

The Ironmaster of Chian Fu  (1829) 
by H. Bedford-Jones
Extracted from the Blue Book magazine, April 1920, pp. 80-86. Title illustration omitted.

This striking drama of the Orient is by the man who wrote “The Ship of Shadows” and “The Junk of Laughing Girl.” Nuff said!

Ironmaster of Chian Fu

By H. Bedford-Jones

JIM HANECY had no excuses to offer. He preserved a rather dogged attitude, as though he expected none of us to believe him. And none of us believed him. I was the only exception, because I had known Jim in China and I knew that he told the truth.

We all looked at the vase while Jim Hanecy told how he got hold of it in Chian Fu, and then we glanced at each other, most of us smiling. I asked permission to photograph the vase, which of course Jim granted at once. And yet even I found it hard to credit his tale.

“How you got the vase,” I said, when the others had gone and we were alone with our pipes and that magnificent vase, “is really incredible; you can’t expect people to believe it, Jim. You’ve had no end of adventures in China, you’ve hunted works of art there for years—but you never got anything half so wonderful as this.”

“That’s true,” said Hanecy sulkily. “I didn’t believe it myself until I had gotten through the customs with the piece.”

“But that,” I said, “is only an incident—a trivial affair. The big thing is that story about Sung Li and the iron workers. There, my friend, you become a Munchausen! My heavens, Jim—that story is an extravaganza on business!”

“I know it,” he answered. “I don’t give a damn if you believe it or not. It’s true, and I saw it happen—every incident of the whole blamed affair! I was there when the men made their demands, and I was with Sung Li the whole time. Man, it didn’t seem so cursed wonderful at the moment, the way he took that Bolshevist gang in hand and curried ’em down! Not until afterward; not until I thought it over and got things straightened out. Little things. The things I told you chaps. It’s all a big story, but the biggest part of it is the vase.”

“The biggest part,” I said, “is about the iron works. That’s a news story, Jim! Was it ever put into print?”

He shook his head.

HANECY made a business of finding objects of art in China and getting them out of the country into America, where curio dealers and collectors bought them from him. Not at fabulous prices, either. It’s when the dealers sell again to the millionaires that the prices get fabulous.

Jim was a ruthless sort of person. He believed in efficiency, and he practiced it very religiously. He had to. Ask the buyers how easy it is to buy objects of art in China—without getting stung—and how easy it is to get them into America!

One day Jim heard that there was a wonderful vase up in the hills at Chian Fu. He believed it. There was nothing at Chian Fu except a small iron works, owned and managed by an old mandarin named Sung Li, who was the only man of prominence in the place. Jim had met the old mandarin in other days, and knew that he was likely to keep a few beautiful things about him, to gaze upon and enjoy daily. That is the Chinese way.

Jim got a Pekin cart, which is a box on wheels, and later got a mule, and finally climbed into Chian Fu along the hill trail. He found an extensive and rather old-fashioned iron works, a lot of workmen’s cottages, a fine market place where country folk brought in produce, and the mandarin’s house flanking the little old temple.

Sung Li welcomed him like a long-lost brother and made him at home. Jim was a bit surprised to see that all the workmen seemed to be idling about the village, and that the works appeared lifeless, but he made no comment on these things. Also, he observed that Sung Li was, under the surface of calm politeness, worried and nervous. As etiquette forbade disturbing a guest with such things, the mandarin made no reference to business troubles.

Immediately after dinner that evening, however, Sung Li had to come to the point.

“My regret,” he said, “is intense and deep that so honored a guest and so valued a friend must be spoken to upon matters of unworthy business—matters of so small import that merely to mention them is an insult!”

“On the contrary,” said Jim gravely, “they would be of great interest to me, Sung Li! I see that the works are shut down.”

“They are,” agreed the mandarin. “The workmen have been educated of late. They have received ambassadors from other lands. They have made great demands upon me. Their leaders are to call upon me this evening.”

It appeared that two of his best workmen had recently come back from foreign parts—one from the Russian border, the other from France, whither they had been called by the war. They had returned with the praiseworthy intention of educating their fellow workmen.

A VERY thorough campaign of Bolshevik propaganda had been carried on. Not by that name, but it amounted to the same thing. The two learned and traveled leaders had been elected to manage the iron works; Sung Li had been calmly ordered to give his workers fifty per cent of his profits, and to admit them to an equal voice in the conduct of the business. Also, he was told to build new cottages to house his workers.

Jim Hanecy was not sure which to admire most—the effrontery of these demands, or the effrontery of Sung Li. The mandarin paid a wage-scale according to old Chinese customs, and it was about the lowest scale left in China. He owned the whole works himself, skinned the workmen by means of his own shops, ran the temple himself and put the profits of that enterprise in his own pocket, and paid himself enormous dividends.

Taken by and large, Sung Li was the most perfect example extant of the capitalist tyrant. Since the establishment of the republic, he had paid Pekin no taxes, and Pekin was helpless to collect payment. He had been mandarin of the district under the empire, and he remained mandarin of the district now.

“Why don’t you break the strike—call in soldiers?” suggested Hanecy.

“I maintain my own soldiers—and they have joined the strikers. I have no desire to let my business pass into Japanese hands, so I cannot well afford to appeal to Pekin.”

Sung Li clapped his hands softly, and the servant appeared, refilling the tiny cups of tea. In deference to his visitor, Sung Li did not follow the old tea-ceremony; he knew that Jim Hanecy wanted to drink his tea while it was hot, not after they were through talking.

But now the mandarin went on to pay his guest the finest compliment Jim Hanecy had received in China.

“I know much of you and your methods,” said Sung Li blandly, “and I admire them. You are called a hard man; you are efficient; you wrong no one, but you do not believe in standing any foolishness. You are a man after my own image. Therefore I shall impose upon your friendship to the extent of asking you to be present at the meeting tonight, if it will not too greatly bore you.”

“I’d be delighted,” said Jim, truthfully. “You have some scheme to settle affairs?”

“Yes,” said the mandarin, and smiled.

Jim Hanecy observed the face of his host, and reflected that he might have an interesting evening. Sung Li was old, but his age could not be told from his features. They were high-boned, smooth with much smiling, and the eyes were hard and keen, like black obsidian. A very dominant face, particularly for a son of T’ang, very deep with half-guessed funds of resolution and implacable strength; much, in fact, like the iron he made and sold.

“I am accountable to no one,” pursued Sung Li softly. “I rule this district, and it is well ruled. If I choose to put into everyday practice the principles of abstract justice, that is my own affair entirely! Only my own soul, my own brain, can command my actions. What do you do in your country, my friend, when workmen make such demands as these?”

Jim Hanecy frowned. “Blessed if I know, Sung Li! According to all accounts, compromise and surrender are the watchwords. I’ve often wished I were a business man back home. Do you know, I sometimes would like to see every working person in the country sweating blood so hard that they’d be glad to get a job at any price—”

The mandarin smiled politely but incredulously.

“Surrender?” he said. “But in a case such as this, where everything is my own property?”

“Surrender,” repeated Jim. “If you didn’t, they’d get you! The canal workers would refuse to handle your barges; the mafus would refuse to load their mules with your iron; the workmen of your customers would strike also until their masters dealt no longer with you. You’d be ruled by a secret terror night and day, never knowing what demands would next be made upon you—”

“Ah, but that is not business!” said Sung Li positively. “That is highway robbery. Please tell me if you think my position correct: Since I own the land, the works, the iron, the machines, I alone have the right to manage my business. Eh?”

“Theoretically, it’s correct—”

“And anyone who wishes to rob me of my property, is a bandit, an enemy?”

“Yes, theoretically. But that’s been thrashed out in my country, Sung Li; capital has abandoned that standpoint long ago.”

“I do not abandon it,” said the other complacently. “I believe in business as it ought to be. This is not your country; it is mine, thanks to the gods! Because you are the sort of man you are, you will appreciate my handling of this matter; a poor and imperfect handling, but the best I can devise. Labor produces for me, and I pay labor for its work; all else is robbery.”

Hanecy shrugged his shoulders. It was useless to attempt to make this man understand.

JIM HANECY heard and viewed the meeting from a side room, screened by a carven lattice. When he entered the room, he saw the pomegranate vase in front of him, and it nearly destroyed all his interest in capital and labor. Small wonder, indeed!

It was shaped like a pomegranate, a foot high. Against a sky-blue ground, whose greenish tinge indicated the Kang-hsi rather than the Chien-lung period, were pomegranate trees, leaves, flowers and fruit, all in natural colors; all, moreover, raised a good half inch from the surface of the bowl—that is, hammered out from the bronze, then inlaid with cloisonned enamel. It was this that made the vase extremely rare and wonderful. It might nor bring much money, but as a work of art it was unique, supreme, a triumph!

Jim fell in love with it at first sight. It was an artist’s vision created, an inspiration come true. He knew he could never buy this from the mandarin, who would have an artist’s affection for it. The thing was beyond price. Suddenly he became aware of voices from the room adjoining, and turned to the lattice.

Sung Li sat in his curved, lacquered mandarin’s arm-chair, smoking a great pipe of jade and brass. It drew the eye, that pipe. Sung Li puffed at it now and then—short little puffs, quickly expelled, as though he did not enjoy it particularly. A little stand beside him held his tobacco, also a painted oil lamp from which to light his pipe.

The mandarin was dressed in his robes of honor and appeared perfectly composed. Before him were ranged ten men, workmen, clad in their blue clothes. Eight of these men were rather sheepish, dogged, sullen; the two who had traveled afar were brazenly cool and discourteous.

These two were the spokesmen. They presented their demands in blunt phrases, saying without hesitation that a new day was dawning, that working men were going to run the industries of the country, and that the mandarin must be content to sit back and see the actual laborers get the profit on what they produced. It was surprisingly occidental, and reminded Hanecy very much of the newspaper reports of conferences between capital and striking labor. At least, this side of it did.

Sung Li listened to it all very patiently, his gittering black eyes fastened upon the ten men before him. In his immobility was something terrible and frightful. It rendered the visitors uneasy, and they sought to look away. But there was nothing else for them to look at. The rugs had been taken from the floor. The two old brown paintings had been taken from the walls. The porcelains had been taken from their carven pedestals. There was just the old mandarin, smoking his pipe and listening impassively to them—and looking at them all the while. They gazed hungrily at the big pipe of jade and brass.

THE two spokesmen ended their tirade and paused for an answer.

“I have heard you,” said Sung Li. “I am speaking to you, my children, not as the mandarin, but as the business man, the man of affairs. You understand?”

They understood, and said so mutteringly.

“There is no use in telling you that you cannot run my business,” he pursued calmly, “or in saying that you have not the ability. You believe that you have the ability?”

They so believed, and affirmed the fact.

“I do not agree with you,” he said placidly. “But, if I refused your demands, you would either remain away from work, or you would take over my iron plant and run it in spite of me, I suppose?”

“Certainly,” said one of the two educated yellow men. “You are the law here, but we are the majority. You are alone, helpless and impotent. We shall take over the place and run it for our own benefit. For years we have been your slaves; now we shall change all this and become our own masters.”

“I see,” said Sung Li, quite unruffled, unmoved by the half concealed threats.

The mandarin laid, down his pipe and rose.

“Be pleased to wait,” he said calmly, “until I shall have procured my books and the private memoranda concerning the business. Be seated, and I will have you served with wine and tea.”

He clapped his hands softly. and two servants appeared with trays. He bowed to the ten visitors, and turned to the nearest door. The ten workmen laughed exultantly, eagerly.

Jim Hanecy was still looking through the lattice at the ten workmen guzzling their hot spiced wine, when he felt a touch on the shoulder and turned to see Sung Li at his elbow, noiseless, smiling gently. Sung Li crooked his finger, and Jim followed him, very quietly, from the room.

Outside, they stood for a moment in the courtyard.

“I am glad you came,” said the mandarin placidly, blinking at the quiet night sky and the silvern moonlight. “Your presence will guarantee the success of my scheme. Otherwise, it would be something of a gamble. You see, I must save my face, as the common folk say.”

Hanecy nodded, understanding only the last remark. After those ten men had come into the mandarin’s house and talked to him like lords, his “face” was in a bad way. Jim gathered that Sung Li cared a good deal for his dignity.

“You’re not going to leave ’em there?” he asked.

“They are quite safe,” and the mandarin smiled. “They walked into my house and held me up—demanded all that I owned at the point of a pistol! Now they are quite certain that I have surrendered.”

HE paused for a moment, blinking at the walls. The entrance to the bungalow was built in Chinese fashion, a short inner wall built across the gateway so that devils, which can only move in a straight line, would be unable to enter.

“You see,” he explained gently, “at the second cup of wine they will all sit in my chair, one by one, and smoke my pipe—it is a very nice pipe, and was given me long ago by Lao Tzu Tsung—the Glorious Old Ancestor! I know them, the swine! They will all want to smoke that pipe.”

Jim Hanecy felt an unaccountable prickling at the name Tzu-Hsi. The old dowager empress has been long dead, and yet, like a presence invisible, her spirit seems to linger in the mists of the Chinese hills. Men say that she returns nightly from the dead to seek her familiar god, the famous pearl Buddha which was lost when the Summer Palace was sacked. Hanecy knew, however, that her spirit still lingered in the land—lingered by intangible paths and in such inaccessible places as the hearts of men. He wondered about that pipe.

“We will go outside and view the workmen,” said Sung Li, a silky laugh peeping from his tones. “May I take your arm? I am an old man, and feeble—”

“But the workmen?” repeated Jim, offering his arm. “They are waiting? They know that their leaders are in conference with you?”

“Oh, yes—they know, and they are waiting! come.”

THE two men walked, arm in arm, out into the moonlit area in front of the mandarin’s house and compound.

Upon the ground in front of them, stretching far away, was a great black mass; a silent, motionless mass dotted irregularly with white shapes, exactly like the rounded white graves with horseshoe-shaped fronts in the Tali cemetery. That mass impressed Jim Hanecy weirdly until, as his eyes became focused to the moonlight, he perceived that it was made up of men—the workmen, squatting there in hundreds, waiting for the return of their leaders.

A low hum of interested curiosity swept the mass when they saw Hanecy thus arm in arm with the mandarin. As for Sung Li, he paid them no more heed than if they had been stones. He advanced with Hanecy to within a dozen feet of the nearest men, talking idly the while, then paused and swept his arm out toward the high smokestacks of the iron foundries.

“There it is, my friend,” he said calmly, lifting his voice, perhaps so that it might pierce distinctly to each one of the hundreds squatting before him. He never glanced at them, ignoring them utterly. “To-morrow I will take you through the place, and you can see if it is suited to your needs.”

Jim Hanecy had absolutely no idea what was expected from him, but he made a stab in the dark which seemed to thrust home very well.

“Those cottages will not do for my men,” he observed. “I noticed them when I arrived this afternoon, your excellency. They are too small.”

Sung Li chuckled deep in his throat, but repressed his mirth.

“Exactly,” he assented. “I have realized for some time that they were small and unworthy even of my workmen—who, the gods know, are swine and brethren of turtles! Some months ago I ordered cement, which is now on the way here, with workmen skilled in its use; and I have plans for the erection of neat stone cottages in place of these structures.”

“That will do very well,” said Hanecy, nodding. The pale, motionless faces there in the flooding moonlight were all fastened upon him. He felt rather uneasy. “What will become of your workmen, then?”

The mandarin laughed, and the laugh was very silky, very terrible in its scorn.

“They are not workmen, my friend! They are robbers and thieves. If you do buy the place, I would suggest that your foreign soldiers shoot one in every ten of these robbers, and turn the others out into the hills. Let them starve, for all I care! Put your workmen in their places, and you will have much better results.”

At this, another low hum passed through the serried mass of squatting men. It was not speech. It was as though each man squatting there, at hearing those words, had uttered a low moan in his throat—or a low growl.

“As for my soldiers,” said the mandarin placidly, “you had better give each of them a hundred lashes, and, if they survive, hang them. They are worse than the robbers.”

JIM HANECY felt frankly afraid, and he is about as impervious to fear as a rhinoceros. If Sung Li had come out here and told his workmen that he intended to sell the works and cast them adrift, the chances were that they would have mobbed him; as he said, it was a gamble. But better than that, he had brought Jim Hanecy, a foreigner, out in front of them and was calmly discussing the sale of the plant as an accomplished purpose.

There was nothing to prevent the hundreds of workmen from coming forward and tearing asunder the two who stood there in the moonlight and ignored them. Jim Hanecy fully expected it to happen, and kept his hand near his automatic. He saw the glint of rifle barrels here and there, and knew that the soldiers were among the squatting mass.

To Hanecy, the thing seemed very futile, a puerile game of bluff—and he knew that bluff does not work with a Chinaman. The mandarin was impotent, and every man of those hundreds realized the fact. He had not a soldier to aid him.

A moment later, however, he began to dimly perceive that the ironmaster of Chian Fu was not so puerile after all. Out of the squatting mass lifted a voice, a wailing, questioning voice that was quite respectful.

“Honorable master, where are Ng Far and Lung, and our eight brethren?”

Sung Li entirely ignored the question, and went on to discuss hypothetical plans for turning over the iron works to foreign control. His men, he stated, had become robbers and thieves and had rebelled against him; therefore, the easiest way would be for him to leave the place and sell everything to the foreigners. Let the sons of turtles starve!

“Honorable master,” lifted another voice, “did not Ng Far and Lung, and our eight brethren talk with you?”

The mandarin seemed to hear the question for the first time. He turned, with a swish of his silken robes, and allowed his gaze to sweep the immobile ranks of men with a scornful pride. His voice, when he answered, was filled with an intolerable sting.

“Oh, thieves and brethren of robbers!” he said coldly. “Well do ye name those men your brethren! Yes, they came and they talked, and this friend of mine heard all that they said! They stood before me, and they talked.”

There was something ominous in his voice, something that made Hanecy’s spine prickle again. After a slight silence, another voice lifted from the mass, and it quavered as though in great anger—or fear.

“When will they return to us, honorable master?”

Sung Li swept the serried ranks with his gaze, and laughed. That laugh was an insult. It was a deadly laugh, cold and very disdainful—like a slap in the face.

“After talking to me as they talked,” he said, “do you think that they will return? They will not return, until my servants throw their bodies on the dungheap! come, my friend,” and he took Hanecy’s arm again. “Let us go back inside and see if the place has been cleansed of the robbers.”

The two walked back to the gate. At each instant, Hanecy expected to hear the bark of a rifle; at each instant, he expected a knife or a bullet in the back. Again that low hum swept through the squatting mass of men. He itched to look around, to see if the hundreds were rising and hurling themselves forward in a frenzied mass—but the cool complacency of Sung Li shamed him into stalking ahead impassively.

When they had gained the gate, the mandarin halted. Hanecy realized that cold sweat was trickling through his hair. Two of the servants appeared coming around the end of the inner wall, carrying something between them. It was the body of one of the ten leaders.

“Throw the carrion on the dungheap outside,” said Sung Li, lifting his voice so that it carried through the night to the mass of workmen. “come inside, my friend. I regret that this shameful thing should have marred the happiness of your visit.”

THE two had barely returned to the mandarin’s reception room, when one of the servants hastily announced that the soldiers were at the gate, asking for an interview with Sung Li.

“Let them wait,” said the mandarin. “Make the room as it was before. When it is done, bring us wine—and admit the thieves.”

Jim Hanecy asked no questions—he saw that Sung Li was on something of a strain, and forebore to interrupt.

There was no sign of the ten leaders in the room, or of what had happened to them. Only, the big jade and brass pipe lay on the floor, as though it had fallen. Sung Li carefully picked it up and put it on the little stand. Then he seated himself in his big curved chair.

The servants brought another chair for Jim Hanecy, and a tray of cakes and hot wine. Then they brought in rugs, pictures, porcelains again, and finally the wonderful pomegranate vase. The room was restored to its pristine luxury, to the luxury and magnificence which befitted a mandarin and an artist.

Then the soldiers were admitted.

To the amazement of Hanecy, they came into the room, as many as could enter, while the rest waited outside, and prostrated themselves toward the seated figure of Sung Li. One of them, evidently chosen as spokesman, whined out his speech.

“Honorable master, wearer of the dragon robe, guardian of lives and happiness pardon your unworthy servants! It is the prayer of us all, and of your worthless laborers, that you will punish us as we deserve for our impiety, but that you will not sell the place to foreigners and doom us all to starvation and death.”

Sung Li looked at them from his implacable eyes of obsidian, black as night. Then he named six names.

“Those six,” he said coldly, “are, with the ten who were here, leaders of the robbers and thieves. I have punished those who dared to enter my house with threats of robbery. If you are repentant and desire pardon, go out and seize those six others, and shoot them. Let all the bodies be collected and displayed in the market place, with placards naming them as robbers and thieves. When this is done, ask for pardon.”

The soldiers withdrew. Hanecy looked at Sung Li, half affrightedly.

“You’re pushing ’em too far,” he muttered.

The mandarin, smiling, lifted his hand. “Wait! Listen!”

The two men listened. A moment of long silence passed; then another. Sung Li reached out to the tray and sipped a little wine. His long yellow fingers were trembling very slightly; it was the only sign of discomposure that he gave.

Then, suddenly, a ragged volley of shots broke the night outside.

“It is done!” Sung Li relaxed in his chair with the abruptness of a broken wire. His face was ashen. He gulped at his wine, regardless of courtesy. “By the gods, it is done! They will be back presently, on their knees. Well, my friend! Can they handle robbers in this fashion in your country?”

Hanecy swore under his breath.

“No,” he said. His eyes lifted to the pomegranate vase, and he attempted feebly to change the subject.

“That vase,” he said hoarsely. “It’s a wonderful thing, Sung Li! I was looking at it in the other room. It’s the most beautiful piece of cloisonné I’ve ever seen; for sheer beauty of line and color and proportion, it’s unique!”

Sung Li nodded, and a smile crept to his lips, which were regaining their color.

“I think so myself,” he said calmly. “I shall have it suitably packed for you, and you shall take it away as a gift. When you get to your own country, show it to those who rule industry, and tell them how the ironmaster of Chian Fu deals with robbers. Perhaps they will be glad to have the prescription.”

JIM HANECY looked at me over his pipe.

“That’s how I got the vase,” he said. “You know why he gave it? Because I had happened to fall in with his little scheme, in what I said out there in the moonlight. Sheer luck, that’s all. He thought I was a deep and brainy guy, working in with him; and I was just a blundering fool. Man, I can’t ever sell that vase! It—it’s the most beautiful thing—”

I smiled, and spoke lightly.

“Then I suppose you’ll pack it up, and trot around the country showing it to all the Steel magnates and telling them about Sung Li and his methods of handling—”

Hanecy looked at me again, a red flush creeping dully into his cheeks.

“Don’t be a damned fool,” he said curtly.

“I’m not. But you’ll have to explain the most vital point, which so far you’ve failed to do. How did your mandarin deal with the deputation of ten? What did he do to ’em?”

“He let them smoke that pipe,” said Hanecy. “It was quite a pipe, darned if it wasn’t! If you didn’t smoke it just so, if you smoked it like any ordinary Chinese pipe, you got a bit of something on your tongue from an invisible aperture. How the devil do I know what it was? Nicotine, perhaps; the Chinese knew long before we did that a drop of pure nicotine kills instantly. It was a big pipe, you know—a big affair of jade and brass—and probably the hot wine was all doped—”

“Then,” I put in, “the whole thing was really luck! It was all a gamble whether they’d smoke that pipe and play at being mandarins—”

Hanecy looked at me in scorn.

“Luck! ” he snorted. “Old Sung Li knew the swine, didn’t he? Luck—hell!”

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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