The Tale of the Tenth Tablet
The Tale of the Tenth Tablet—By H. Bedford-Jones
CHENG-TU is an ancient city on a plain, with three million people crowded around it. Before the Roman empire fell, Cheng-tu was great. Hence, it might be imagined that when Jim Hanecy, agent and dealer in antiques, came 1,500 miles up the Yangtze river to this city he knew what he as doing.
The contrary was the case.
Hanecy was red-haired and was tremendously efficient in a cold, clear-headed way. He came up-river as far as the gorges on definite business, running down some old porcelains. Then he fell foul of river men lately returned from French labor battalions with swaggering ideas of equality. The upshot of the matter was that Hanecy was shanghaied, and woke up some days afterward to find himself kicked ashore and lucky to get off with his life.
Jim took it philosophically. He tramped into Chungking, where there was a consul, and outfitted anew. Here, to his astonishment, he learned that no less than four other white men had just passed up-river on their way to Cheng-tu. This fact became a coincidence when he discovered that all four had traveled separately and in haste. The coincidence settled into a suspicion when he discovered that all four were his most prominent professional rivals.
"Hello!" said Hanecy. "Now I've dropped onto something and no mistake!"
He promptly hired a boat and went to Cheng-tu. He did not know why he went, but he smelled a distinct rat. One of the four was Benson, and Benson never went after anything in person unless it was tremendously important. There was something up.
"Some big news broke suddenly on the coast," reflected Hanecy. "Reached 'em all at once. Let's see now! Toptit is straight as a string. Benson is crooked as the devil. Gramerfeld would rob his own brother of a penny. Carson plays a lone hand, same as I do. H'm! I'd sooner work with Toptit than any of the others—but I guess I'll trail Benson. He and I are about due to lock horns, anyhow!"
HANECY did not deceive himself when he deliberately chose this course. Benson was the most dangerous man in China. He knew the dialects like a native, and had lines of influence and graft extending in all directions. Small, rather shortsighted, coolly pleasant, he never lost his head for a minute. He was said to have all the ruthless cruelty of a Manchu, but few of his personal enemies ever reported on that point.
The first problem facing Jim Hanecy was to discover what was up. He had letters to a fur dealer named Kiang, who was delighted to take him as a guest; but old Kiang knew nothing of the mystery. So Jim sallied forth on the afternoon of his arrival.
Kiang's shop and house lay in the business quarter, just inside the east gate. Hanecy sauntered along the wide, fifty-foot street with its scurrying crowds and its rows of flashy gilt signs—and two minutes afterward came slap on Benson, who was standing gazing into a shop window filled with Tibetan images.
"Hello!" exclaimed Hanecy, shaking hands, "So you're on the trail too, eh?"
Benson smiled—a nasty smile it was. He was not pleased to see Hanecy.
"Too late," he returned. "The show's over. Carson has left already. Gramerfield leaves in the morning. Toptit has disappeared. I'm going in a couple of days."
"Oh!" Hanecy grinned. "What kind of a lie did you hand out, to discourage 'em that way?"
Benson's eves narrowed.
"Don't get too personal, Hanecy. The stuff has been dispersed. There were a lot of collectors here, you know. The fellow split up the whole business and it's gone."
Jim concealed his ignorance successfully.
"You're a first-chop liar," he returned cheerfully, and thereby declared war. "So you fooled the other boys, eh. Well, don't monkey with me, Benson. I'll stick around a while."
He passed on, leaving Benson staring after him. He was as mystified as ever. He knew that Cheng-tu contained many native collections of paintings and antiques, most of them imitations, referring to the Han period. Still, he could not imagine just what had brought his confreres here. He chuckled to think how Benson had managed to get rid of Gramerfield and Carson so quickly. That left only Toptit in the field—a gangling Yankee agent whom Hanecy rather respected.
There were no 'rikishas to be had in this place, and Hanecy suspected that the sedan chairs might have previous and more nimble tenants, so he preferred walking. From previous visits he knew the city well enough to find his way about, and directed his course to the south gate, where stood the government buildings. Shortly before reaching these he compromised with dignity and hired a chair which sat him down at the entrance to the Yamen.
Hanecy paid his respects to the local mandarin. He did it in his usual fashion, without great regard for etiquette, intending merely to get the matter over and done with, so that he might be free to act as affairs might dictate. Somewhat to his surprise he found himself received very cordially by the mandarin, who was an official from Peking and who spoke English.
Hanecy was still more astonished when the mandarin blandly referred to what had brought him and his fellow dealers to Cheng-tu.
"Perhaps you have not heard, Mr. Hanecy, that the things have been dispersed."
Hanecy stalled. "I know only rumors, your excellency. What are the facts?"
The mandarin beamed on him with oily grace. Hanecy decided to distrust the gentleman.
"It is no news to you, of course, that a workman in Honan unearthed certain relics which must have come from no other than the tomb of the Emperor Ling Ti of the eastern-Han dynasty?"
"That," said Hanecy promptly, "is what brought me here."
"Of course," was the bland response, "You know that the workman, who came from Cheng-tu, fled here at once with the things he unearthed, but not before news of his discovery had gone abroad. Reaching here, he confided the treasures to a relative and shortly afterward died. The relative disposed of the things carelessly. Your fellow dealers came here too late."
Hanecy expressed proper disappointment, drank his tea to end the audience, and departed thoughtfully. He retraced his legs across town by way of the moated, walled and entirely ruined palace of the old Han emperors, in the center of town.
AT least, he had learned what he was here for! It was not likely that some workman had chanced on an emperor's tomb. Most of these tombs were looted ages ago, but many yet remain. And Ling Ti, who had reigned in the second century A. D. would have taken some fine things with him to the spirit world.
"I'd like to know whether this mandarin was lying," reflected Hanecy, striding down the narrow street that led past the ruined palace moats.
An instant later he had his answer. It came in the shape of a dirty beggar, who rose up out of the dust and came within an ace of sending Hanecy to join his several ancestors by means of a six-inch sliver of steel.
For a man so immersed in thought, the American moved with astonishing rapidity. With his left hand he caught the knife wrist and jerked the beggar forward; with his right he groped for the man's ribs. There was a single wild howl, and Hanecy looked calmly down at the writhing object. He ignored the fast-gathering crowd.
"The hands of the foreign devils are strong," he said grimly. "Be thankful that I broke your ribs instead of your neck, son of a turtle!"
He went his way chuckling a little to himself. He knew now that the mandarin had lied, and that Benson had lied. The Ling Ti relics might be dispersed, but they were within reach.
"You have a lot of friends among these yellow folk, Benson!" he murmured complacently. "But I have a few myself. Still, I didn't think you'd go as far as this merely because I called you a liar. So it's war, is it? I'm satisfied!"
Jim Hanecy conferred long with the estimable Kiang, merchant in furs, that evening. He told Kiang all the truth, and the old son of Han smiled gently upon him.
"There will be no further attempts on your life in the streets, my friend." said Kiang complacently. "I will speak with certain members of my tong, and they will see to it. Still, I cannot answer for other places. May I unworthily advise that you tread with care, lest you step on the tail of a tiger."
Hanecy grinned. "I'm used to tigers, Kiang—thanks all the same. So you know nothing about this treasure?"
Kiang knew nothing. He belonged to one of the historic families, had an extensive collection of jade and, and was certain that no ancient objects had been offered for sale generally. And thus the conference ended.
In the morning Hanecy went forth carrying a gun in the holster under his arm. He could not depend under on Kiang's tong brethren for too much. He realized that Benson was playing a big game of some kind, and that if he fought Benson he would be fighting some powerful and dangerous allies. Also, Benson's reference to the disappearance of Toptit worried him badly. Hanecy liked this Toptit, who made poetry and had a knack of ingratiating himself with the natives, but he hardly considered Toptit a match for the astute Benson. The word "disappeared" had an ominous flavor, coming from Benson. Perhaps that had been a hint, a covert threat.
"If anything happened to poor Toptit, I'll make Benson sweat for it," thought Hanecy angrily. "Now, where to go? Ah! I think I'll take a trip to the Tu temple—the bonzes are good old sports and would put me wise to anything they knew."
This was no random cast. The Buddhist priests at the temple of the poet Tu were old friends of Hanecy, and were fairly reliable. They would have the whole countryside gossip on their tongues, and would have no traffic with Benson. The latter was notorious as an enemy of the bonzes, because of a certain barefaced robbery perpetrated on a Shantung temple. Benson and his satellites would keep away from Buddhist centers.
Hanecy summoned a chair and directed the bearers to the temple, which stood outside the south gate and across the Lo-han bridge.
There were in reality two temples, standing beneath a grove of immense oaks and surrounded on three sides by the "Flower-washing river." When he entered the main gate Hanecy took the path to the right, and presently stood before the extremely beautiful spot known as "Master Tu's Shrine."
It was a small temple, a gem of architecture, set amid graceful bamboos and flowering trees: the courtyard was a huge and ancient garden where orchids and the more delicate magnolias gave the appearance of a jungle. Here and there were arbors for visitors. The entire place was in keeping with its poetical tradition, exquisitely beautiful.
HANECY, standing at the courtyard entrance, exchanged greetings with the old priest who appeared, and asked for the abbot in charge. The latter was away, but the bonze bade Hanecy enter and make free of the place until the junior abbot could receive him. To this Jim assented gratefully.
With a sigh of relaxation he removed his hat, wiped his brow and entered one of the orchid-heavy arbors to seat himself. He found himself face to face with Toptit.
"Thought I recognized your red topknot from afar!" exclaimed Toptit genially. "How did you know I was here?"
"I didn't know." Hanecy chuckled and inspected his professional rival with interest. About Toptit's head was wrapped a bandage of large proportions. "What hit you?"
"That's still a question," returned Toptit whimsically. "Did you get my message? I heard you were in town and sent word to the yamen——"
"The devil!" snapped Hancey, suddenly alert. "Then Benson knows where you're hiding!"
"Who said I was hiding?" demanded the other.
"Quit the comedy, Toptit! Benson is hand in glove with that cursed mandarin."
Toptit whistled and screwed up his angular face in a grimace. Then he laughed.
"Well, Benson won't get in here! The bonzes wouldn't let him past the outside gate. Who put you on the track of the Ling Ti treasure?"
"I heard about it." Hanecy sat down and produced his pipe. "What hit you?"
Toptit chuckled. "I don't know, I tell you. Somebody soaked me over the head two nights ago and threw me into the river. I crawled out over the promontory and had a chat with the boss priest here. I suspected Benson wanted to get me out of the way, since we had exchanged a few illnatured words. I've been here ever since, writing sonnets, which the priests admire vastly, and having a good time."
Hanecy grinned at this and began to revise some of his notions about Toptit.
"You're not the fool you look," he observed.
"Thanks, sorrel-top. Same to you. Is Benson on your trail?"
"Maybe. And maybe I'm on his." Hanecy's steely eyes glinted. "You must have some information about that Ling Ti stuff, or Benson's friend wouldn't have jumped you."
Toptit inspected him thoughtfully. "I've always heard," he said, "that you met a chap on the level."
"And parted with him on the square." Hanecy grinned again. "Well, shoot!"
"On a fifty-fifty basis."
Hanecy nodded. Thus, in a few words, was the partnership arranged. It was almost the first personal meeting of the two men, yet reputation had preceded each of them, and the meeting clinched as truth what rumor had carried. Each man knew that the other could be fully trusted.
"I'm out of the game." Toptit grimaced again as he sat down, and he spoke soberly. "At least, I'm out of it for a time. There's a nasty cut under my shoulder."
"I thought they would have tried to make certain," said Hanecy. "Knocking a white man on the head and slinging him into the river is a rather dubious guarantee against his talking. Especially thick-headed white men. But go on."
"Spare the compliments," retorted Toptit. "Here's the real dope on that guy from Hanan. He came here with the stuff, but the news had spread pretty fast. When he got here the mandarin tried to grab the whole business for himself, but the stubborn beggar refused to give it up and he got away from the yamen with it, too. The mandarin sent soldiers after him, and they finally got him—put a bullet slap into him. Well, he went into the river, and some of the loot went with him, and it's gone. Six pieces of it are left."
"Ah!" said Hanecy, biting on his pipestem. "Where are the six?"
"Scattered between here and Chungking in pawnshops or other places. I have the list."
"Good work! If Benson had it——"
"He has it," said Toptit calmly. "That's why I sent word to the yamen—that message to you. Benson knows that I have the list. He won't go after the stuff until he's got me out of the way. Savvy? He knows now that I'm alive and kicking and still dangerous."
Hanecy regarded his compatriot with admiration.
"Say, I've underestimated you, old hoss! You're a cool devil. What's to hinder Benson going after the stuff while you're laid up here?"
"Local customs; Chungking is a treaty spot, and he would have to smuggle it through the customs there. He's afraid, if he gets it, I'll warn the customs people. That stuff would be grabbed by the government in a minute. He wants to put me under the sod first."
Hanecy nodded. With every moment he was gaining new respect for this Toptit—who, he perceived, was anything but the gangling, ignorant poet-Yankee he appeared.
"You'll hold Benson busy while I get the stuff—is that it?" he queried.
"Something like that. It'll take time. The chap who found it originally had a lot of relatives up and down the river. The present holders are nearly all relatives. Of course, Benson will have the present owners watched. He'll know if you go after any of the stuff, and you can look for trouble. He may leave me alone, in fact, and go to it himself. That's your lookout."
"See here," said Hanecy. "don't you borrow any worry on my end. You give me that list and leave the rest to me."
"I have to get some of it myself—two or three pieces," returned Toptit. "I can do it, I think. You see, these fellows love poetry, and if I write 'em a poem they'll deal with me, because a poem is a compliment."
"Benson doesn't deal in poems," said Hanecy. "What's the program?"
"All right, suit yourself! Go get a jade tablet that's held by Yen Ching, who has a pawnshop and drug store back of the Kuan-ti temple in the city."
"Eh? In the city here?" Hanecy frowned. "Why doesn't Benson get it?"
"Go and see," returned Toptit, with an irritating grin. "Bet you two cents you don't get the tablet."
Hanecy grunted and rose "I'll be back tomorrow with it," he said.
BECAUSE he believed in getting things done by doing them himself, Jim Hanecy went straight into the city, dismissed his chair, and walked toward the Kuan-ti-miao, where the young gentlemen of Cheng-tu gathered by night in the spacious halls to amuse their bodies and souls with the various diversions of youth.
Hanecy discovered that he was being trailed by a man in a black cap, a fur-trimmed blouse and quilted trousers. Paying no attention to the man, Hanecy sought out the shop of Yen Ching, a dirty, grimy little hole in the wall. He went inside.
In the rear a group of men were smoking and talking. The proprietor came to meet him—a yellow man with wispy mustaches and beard and keenly sparkling eyes that inquired Hanecy's business without any show of wonder at seeing a white man.
"You have a jade tablet here," said Hanecy without preamble. "May I inspect it?"
Yen Ching assented, his dialect a little difficult to follow. He turned to a box on a shelf and held out to Hanecy a flat tablet of gray, reddish-dotted jade, ten inches in length and half as wide. One edge of the half-inch slab was pierced with holes. Upon the surface was a single line of incised characters, the old picture writing of the Han period.
"What is your price on this?" asked Hanecy.
"It is not for sale," responded Yen Ching.
"I wish only to hear a price named."
"That is impossible. I promised a friend to keep it six months. I am a man of honor."
"But your friend is dead!"
"He may come back," was the only response.
Hanecy knew himself blocked. Yen Chlng's honor and his fear of a ghost-haunted future were insuperable to money. He copied the inscription on the tablet, thanked Yen Ching and departed.
He went straight home to Kiang's house. He had no doubt that the tablet was genuine, for It was unmistakable Han jade, such as is no longer found In China. It was, he conjectured, one of a number bound together by the pierced edges to form a jade book.
Kiang, who was quite scholar enough to read the Han ideographs, confirmed this with visible excitement upon seeing Hanecy's copy of the inscription.
"This is the tenth tablet of a jade sacrificial book," he affirmed, "giving the virtues and honorable names of the Emperor Ling Ti. My friend, I congratulate you on finding such a thing! But I have heard of Yen Ching; he is a man of honor and will not sell the tablet until the six months of his promise have expired."
Hanecy swore under his breath. It was all he could do. He perceived that this jade slab, even without its authentic historicity, would fetch a huge price. Any museum would stretch its means to get such a thing. But to wait six months or so.
"I'll go back and see Yen Ching again this afternoon," he said. Old Kiang merely smiled.
Useless though he knew it to be, Hanecy none the less started out when the heat of the afternoon was waning and directed his steps toward the old palace quarter. He had no definite intention beyond trying to get on some friendly basis with the pawnbroker.
Before he was half-way to his destination, however, he heard himself addressed in flawless Mandarin. Turning in some surprise, Hanecy saw at his elbow the man whom he had observed that morning—the man wearing a black cap, a fur-trimmed blouse and quilted trousers. The yellow man bowed and then took from beneath his blouse an object wrapped in faded silk.
"I was directed to give this to you, excellency, with greetings from an humble and most unworthy friend who desires to please you."
The speaker immediately withdrew and disappeared in the crowd. Hanecy, frowning, opened the faded silk wrapping and disclosed—the tenth tablet!
For an instant he was literally dumfounded. From whom could it have come—and why? As he strode along he could scarce credit his good fortune.
Hanecy was nearing the south gate when a nearly naked coolie wearing a white head-cloth—the color of mourning—approached and spoke to him. He halted and listened.
When Jim Hanecy reached the Lohan bridge he found the traffic interrupted. Ahead of him was the temple of his destination; also ahead of him and occupying the center of the bridge were a dozen soldiers and an officer of the mandarin's provincial army.
Concluding that some case of native jurisdiction was going forward, in which every one crossing the bridge was being halted and searched, or else that some criminal was being sought, Jim Hanecy carelessly strode ahead. To his surprise, the officer in charge stepped out in front of him.
"Why are you stopping me?" demanded Hanecy, who was accustomed to the deference accorded whites, and particularly Americans, in the Flowery kingdom.
"The orders are most strict, honorable sir," returned the officer. "We are posted here to apprehend a murderer."
"Ah!" Hanecy smiled. "You will know him by sight. I suppose——"
"By search, excellency. A merchant named Yen Ching was murdered this afternoon. His slayer carried off a highly valuable tablet of old jade and several tins of opium—which is, of course, contraband. We have been given to understand that it will come this way.
HANECY inspected the crowd sharply. A steely glitter came into his eyes. He perceived that a clever trap had been set for him, and now he saw who had set the trap.
It was Benson's doing, of course. Benson had sent his man to kill Yen Ching and steal the tenth tablet. Then, in order to get Hanecy out of the way for good and all, he had gone into partnership with the mandarin. The two were working together.
Seeing the white man hesitating, the soldiers drew in closer, and with them the crowd behind.
"I am an American," said Hanecy. "Even if I had committed this crime, the mandarin could not judge me. I must be sent to the consul at Chungking."
"That may be true, excellency," said the officer. "I have nothing to do with it."
"Very well." Hanecy shrugged his shoulders. "I have a revolver in a holster. You can see by passing your hands over me that neither the jade not the opium is in my possession."
The officer apologized and leaned forward.
Now, any one who knew Jim Hanecy would have stood aghast at this. It was not his way to tamely stand up and be searched. It was not his way to act on the defensive at all. When Hanecy declared war he usually struck hard and fast.
He reddened a little under the humiliation—more fancied than real—as the officer patted his pockets. Anger stirred in him deeply. When the officer stood back, looking a trifle dismayed, Hanecy eyed him with a grim smile.
"So, my friend! Now tell me the truth. You were informed that the jade tablet would be in my possession, is it not so? Your men were waiting here for me?"
The officer stammered. "Yes, excellency—and the opium also——"
Hanecy's eyes glittered. "I don't forget he opium," he said crisply. "How much of it was stolen from the shop of Yen Ching?"
"Four ten-tael tins, excellency. Yen Ching was found dead, clasping the smuggled case in his hands. Those who found him looked at once for the jade tablet, which was his most valuable possession——"
"I see," said Hanecy. "Somebody came to get the jade, and, seeing the opium, decided to take that as well, eh? I suppose that I may pass by?"
The official bowed in some confusion.
Jim Hanecy passed him, passed the soldiers, who were staring at him open-mouthed. It was evident that they had all been waiting there for Hanecy; that their stoppage of other persons was all a blind. Hanecy perceived the trap quite clearly.
As Hanecy came to the little crowd of people waiting he whirled suddenly, paused and turned upon them. There was a swift scattering, a bleat of terror; they knew, these yellow folk, when death was looking out of the eyes of a man!
The hand of Jim Hanecy slipped to his armpit. There was a sharp crack. He stood with a little curl of vapor rising from the tip of his pistol, then he shoved the weapon away. One of the crowd, a man who had been slinking back out of sight, lay outstretched and motionless.
The soldiers ran in, shouting, to surround Hanecy. He did not move until the officer came up, then he turned and smiled grimly.
"That man," and he gestured toward the body, "is the one who murdered Yen Ching. Let search be made and the opium will be found upon him."
"That one!" cried the officer, taken aback. "Why, that is the one who ——" He checked himself suddenly. Hanecy finished the sentence for him.
"That is the one who bore word to the yamen that I was guilty. Yes, I know it. Let the search be made quickly. I have no more time to waste."
The officer approached the body. The soldiers and yellow folk stared in dumb astonishment at the scene. The officer knelt and searched the body of the dead man—the man who wore a black cap, a fur-trimmed blouse and quilted trousers. When the officer rose he held four tins of opium.
"Justice," said Hanecy drily, "is the rarest and most admirable of virtues. Return to the yamen with news of what has been done here. If my presence is desired, I shall be at the Tu-kung-tsz yonder."
The officer bowed, speechless, and motioned his men to fall away from Hanecy.
The American passed on without looking back at the scene. When he had left the bridge behind and was out of sight he removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. A dry laugh was on his lips.
"Justice!" he said. "Well, that's the sort of abstract justice these yellow men adore; the kind they understand. By tomorrow I'll be hailed far and wide as the light of Asia or something, eh? I sure hope that coolie shows up with the tenth tablet!"
HE wended his way to the temple where Toptit awaited him. He found Toptit in one of the arbors, busily inscribing verses upon a sheet of red paper.
Hanecy told his partner exactly what had transpired. Toptit listened in silence, made one or two corrections in his last verse, and then broke the silence.
"You are cursed reckless, Hanecy," he said. "How did you know that the man was the murderer?"
"I didn't," and Hanecy chuckled. "That was the gamble. It looked as though whoever stole the jade had caught Yen Ching with some opium, and had hooked the opium of his own account. Then, of course, Benson had kept him busy ever since laying that trap for me. I gambled that the opium was on him—and it was."
"But the jade?" exclaimed Toptit. "You calmly handed it over to that coolie——"
"Sure." Hanecy lighted his pipe and relaxed comfortably. "Old Kiang had sent the coolie to me, savvy? Sent him to catch me with word that there was some sort of a trap in prospect. So I handed over the jade tablet. He promised to bring it here."
"A coolie's promise!" grunted Toptit.
"Well, I told you the fellow had a white mourning rag on, didn't I?" Hanecy expelled a whiff of smoke. "He was Yen Ching's brother—and here he is now!"
They leaped up as a man appeared before the arbor, accompanied by one of the priests. It was the coolie, and he bore the tenth tablet.
"Lucky devil!" murmured Toptit.
Hanecy only grinned.