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CHAPTER XI

Of Which it is Written: "In Shallow Water Dragons become the Laughing-stock of Shrimps"

 

AT an early gong-stroke of the following day Kai Lung was finally brought up for judgment in accordance with the venomous scheme of the reptilian Ming-shu. In order to obscure their guilty plans all justice-loving persons were excluded from the court, so that when the story-teller was led in by a single guard he saw before him only the two whose enmity he faced, and one who stood at a distance prepared to serve their purpose.

"Committer of every infamy and inceptor of nameless crimes," began Ming-shu, moistening his brush, "in the past, by the variety of discreditable subterfuges, you have parried the stroke of a just retribution. On this occasion, however, your admitted powers of evasion will avail you nothing. By a special form of administration, designed to meet such cases, your guilt will be taken as proved. The technicalities of passing sentence and seeing it carried out will follow automatically."

"In spite of the urgency of the case," remarked the Mandarin, with an assumption of the evenly-balanced expression that at one time threatened to obtain for him the title of "The Just", "there is one detail which must not be ignored--especially as our ruling will doubtless become a lantern to the feet of later ones. You appear, malefactor, to have committed crimes--and of all these you have been proved guilty by the ingenious arrangement invoked by the learned recorder of my spoken word--which render you liable to hanging, slicing, pressing, boiling, roasting, grilling, freezing, vatting, racking, twisting, drawing, compressing, inflating, rending, spiking, gouging, limb-tying, piecemeal-pruning and a variety of less tersely describable discomforts with which the time of this court need not be taken up. The important consideration is, in what order are we to proceed and when, if ever, are we to stop?"

"Under your benumbing eye, Excellence," suggested Ming-shu resourcefully, "the precedent of taking first that for which the written sign is the longest might be established. Failing that, the names of all the various punishments might be inscribed on separate shreds of parchment and these deposited within your state umbrella. The first withdrawn by an unbiased--"

"High Excellence," Kai Lung ventured to interrupt, "a further plan suggests itself which--"

"If," exclaimed Ming-shu in irrational haste, "if the criminal proposes to narrate a story of one who in like circumstances--"

"Peace!" interposed Shan Tien tactfully. "The felon will only be allowed the usual ten short measures of time for his suggestion, nor must he, under that guise, endeavour to insert an imagined tale."

"Your ruling shall keep straight my bending feet, munificence," replied Kai Lung. "Hear now my simplifying way. In place of cited wrongs--which, after all, are comparatively trivial matters, as being merely offences against another or in defiance of a local usage--substitute one really overwhelming crime for which the penalty is sharp and explicit."

"To that end you would suggest--?" Uncertainty sat upon the brow of both Shan Tien and Ming-shu.

"To straighten out the entangled thread this person would plead guilty to the act--in a lesser capacity and against his untrammelled will--of rejoicing musically on a day set apart for universal woe: a crime aimed directly at the sacred person of the Sublime Head and all those of his Line."

At this significant admission the Mandarin's expression faded; he stroked the lower part of his face several times and unostentatiously indicated to the two attendants that they should retire to a more distant obscurity. Then he spoke.

"When did this--this alleged indiscretion occur, Kai Lung?" he asked in a considerate voice.

"It is useless to raise a cloud of evasion before the sun of your penetrating intellect," replied the story-teller. "The eleventh day of the existing moon was its inauspicious date."

"That being yesterday? Ming-shu, you upon whom the duty of regulating my admittedly vagarious mind devolves, what happened officially on the eleventh day of the Month of Gathering-in?" demanded the Mandarin in an ominous tone.

"On such and such a day, benevolence, three-score and fifteen years ago, the imperishable founder of the existing dynasty ascended on a fiery dragon to be a guest on high," confessed the conscience-stricken scribe, after consulting his printed tablets. "Owing to the stress of a sudden journey significance of the date had previously escaped my weed-grown memory, tolerance."

"Alas!" exclaimed Shan Tien bitterly, "among the innumerable drawbacks of an exacting position the enforced reliance upon an unusually inept and more than ordinarily self-opinionated inscriber of the spoken word is perhaps the most illimitable. Owing to your profuse incompetence that which began as an agreeable prelude to a busy day has turned into a really serious matter."

"Yet, lenience," pleaded the hapless Ming-shu, lowering his voice for the Mandarin's private ear, "so far the danger resides in this one throat alone. That disposed of--"

"Perchance," replied Shan Tien; then turning to Kai Lung: "Doubtless, O story-teller, you were so overcome by the burden of your guilt that until this moment you have hidden the knowledge of it deep within your heart?"

"Magnificence, the commanding quality of your enduring voice would draw the inner matter from a marrow-bone," frankly replied Kai Lung. "Fearful lest this crime might go unconfessed and my weak and trembling ghost therefrom be held to bear its weight unto the end of time, I set out the full happening in a written scroll and sent it at daybreak by a sure and secret hand to a scrupulous official to deal with as he sees fit."

"Your worthy confidant would assuredly be a person of incorruptible integrity?"

"The repute of the upright Censor K'o-yih had reached even these stunted ears."

"Inevitably: the Censor K'o-yih!" Shan Tien's hasty glance took in the angle of the sun and for a moment rested on the door leading to the part where his swiftest horses lay. "By this time the message will have reached him?"

"Omnipotence," replied Kai Lung, spreading out his hands to indicate the full extent of his submission, "not even a piece of the finest Ping-hi silk could be inserted between the deepest secret of this person's heart and your all-extracting gaze. Should you, in your meritorious sense of justice, impose upon me a punishment that would seem to be adequate, it would be superfluous to trouble the obliging Censor in the matter. To this end the one who bears the message lurks in a hidden corner of Tai until a certain hour. If I am in a position to intercept him there he will return the message to my hand; if not, he will straightway bear it to the integritous K'o-yih."

"May the President of Hades reward you--I am no longer in a position to do so!" murmured Shan Tien with concentrated feeling. "Draw near, Kai Lung," he continued sympathetically, "and indicate--with as little delay as possible--what in your opinion would constitute a sufficient punishment."

Thus invited and with his cords unbound, Kai Lung advanced and took his station near the table, Ming-shu noticeably making room for him.

"To be driven from your lofty presence and never again permitted to listen to the wisdom of your inspired lips would undoubtedly be the first essential of my penance, High Excellence."

"It is gran--inflicted," agreed Shan Tien, with swift decision.

"The necessary edict may conveniently be drafted in the form of a safe-conduct for this person and all others of his band to a point beyond the confines of your jurisdiction--when the usually agile-witted Ming-shu can sufficiently shake off the benumbing torpor now assailing him so as to use his brush."

"It is already begun, O virtuous harbinger of joy," protested the dazed Ming-shu, overturning all the four precious implements in his passion to comply. "A mere breath of time--"

"Let it be signed, sealed and thumb-pressed at every available point of ambiguity," enjoined Shan Tien.

"Having thus oppressed the vainglory of my self-willed mind, the presumption of this unworthy body must be subdued likewise. The burden of five hundred taels of silver should suffice. If not--"

"In the form of paper obligations, estimable Kai Lung, the same amount would go more conveniently within your scrip," suggested the Mandarin hopefully.

"Not convenience, O Mandarin, but bodily exhaustion is the essence of my task," reproved the story-teller.

"Yet consider the anguish of my internal pang, if thus encumbered, you sank spent by the wayside, and being thereby unable to withhold the message, you were called upon to endure a further ill."

"That, indeed, is worthy of our thought," confessed Kai Lung. "To this end I will further mortify myself by adventuring upon the uncertain apex of a trustworthy steed (a mode of progress new to my experience) until I enter Tai."

"The swiftest and most reputable awaits your guiding hand," replied Shan Tien.

"Let it be enticed forth into a quiet and discreet spot. In the interval, while the obliging Ming-shu plies an unfaltering brush, the task of weighing out my humiliating burden shall be ours."

In an incredibly short space of time, being continually urged on by the flattering anxiety of Shan Tien (whose precipitancy at one point became so acute that he mistook fourscore taels for five), all things were prepared. With the inscribed parchment well within his sleeve and the bags of silver ranged about his body, Kai Lung approached the platform that had been raised to enable him to subdue the expectant animal.

"Once in the desired position, weighted down as you are, there is little danger of your becoming displaced," remarked the Mandarin auspiciously.

"Your words are, as usual, many-sided in their wise application, benignity," replied Kai Lung. "One thing only yet remains. It is apart from the expression of this one's will, but as an act of justice to yourself and in order to complete the analogy--" And he indicated the direction of Ming-shu.

"Nevertheless you are agreeably understood," declared Shan Tien, moving apart. "Farewell."

As those who controlled the front part of the horse at this moment relaxed their tenacity, Kai Lung did not deem it prudent to reply, nor was he specifically observant of the things about. But a little later, while in the act of permitting the creature whose power he ruled to turn round for a last look at its former home, he saw that the unworthy no longer flourished. Ming-shu, with his own discarded cang around his vindictive neck, was being led off in the direction of the prison-house.



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