McClure's Magazine/Volume 55/Number 5/The Ivory Bird Cage
Amid the Gilded Splendor of the China Coast an American Girl Seeks
The Ivory Bird Cage
Illustrations by O. F. Schmidt
THE man's smoothly calculated insult seemed to pass almost unheard by Joan Thurston. For a long moment she did not even return her gaze to him. Her face showed none of the swift, intolerable anger that leaped into her brain. Her regard remained fixed on the long sweep of the bay, the little steamer from Hongkong with its one funnel and absurdly long trail of smoke, the fishing junks with nets like spider webs spread to dry across their yellow sails, the glittering splendor of afternoon sunlight on the sea.
She had received the man on the hotel veranda, and his first words had driven a flame through her—yet she did not show it. Now she turned to him, her eyes cool as the blue bay under the sweep of the Penha heights, her voice quiet and imperturbable.
“Am I to understand, Mr. Gorgonza, that you threaten me?”
Gorgonza smiled his oily, deprecating smile. His turgid eyes the eyes of a half-blood Eurasian—of a true Macaense, smoldered upon her loveliness.
“Dear madame, you misunderstand!” he purred. “I merely advise.”
Joan's face flashed into a smile. It was an elusive and charming smile, which quite altered her rather austere beauty into a thing of warmly pulsing power. Gorgonza, being what he was, read in that smile a stirring of sex, thought that she was about to exert her beauty to conquer him—and the thought shone in his eyes.
“Suppose we sit down,” she said pleasantly. “I should like to understand you more clearly, Mr. Gorgonza.”
She accepted the chair that he placed for her, ignoring his bow. As she sank into it her eyes swept from the sea to the marvelous vista below and beyond, along the hillside—all Macao lay there outspread in its afternoon glory; white houses reaching back to the cliff, trees lining the perfect sickle-sweep of shore, and in the center the two slim flag poles, like straight geometrical lines. Here and there, from this vantage point, showed iridescent, shimmering lines that ran in graceful curves among the buildings; the tops of garden walls—these, with their green-glass spikes glistening in the white sunlight. Macao was beautiful, both in ensemble and in detail, and it was almost with an effort that the girl's eyes came back to this fatly smirking caller. Gorgonza produced a cigarette.
“With your permission, madame? Thank you. Now, let me state my position more clearly.”
Illustration: “Am I to understand, Mr. Gorgonza, that you threaten me?” asked the girl. Gorgonza smiled his oily, deprecating smile, his turgid eyes smoldering on her loveliness
AIRILY, Gorgonza lighted the cigarette. By dint of long habit, he concealed his muddy finger ends. Then he spoke softly, persuasively.
“I know, dear madame, that you have come to China to deal in antiques—real and beautiful works of art such as millionaires buy in America. You are an exceptional woman. Up north, they have conferred upon you the name of 'The Angel Buyer.' This, I assure you, is a compliment, a great compliment, and nothing else! It is my privilege to say that the name is deserved. Me, I have never before this understood that angels were of your charming sex—you perceive that I read my Bible, madame. However, I have learned something to-day.”
Joan smiled again. Some of the dealers and agents in the northern cities had changed their opinion of her since that nickname had been bestowed. An angel is not so easily rooked as some folk imagine. Now her eyes widened upon Gorgonza, fascinated him.
“You know so much about me!” she exclaimed.
“I am well served.” He smiled into her eyes, tenderly; brushed his mustache with his thumb; puffed at his cigarette. “Now you have come to Macao, and in Macao—behold! It is I, Joao de Gorgonza, of the blood of the great Albuquerque, who am the one dealer here in real antiques. That is, you understand, the one who controls! I know what you have come here to find. It is the bird cage of the Viceroy P'ao.”
Joan Thurston assented with a birdlike nod of her poised head. Gorgonza might have read peril in her eyes, but he only smirked again and went on suavely.
“Dear lady, this business of ours is not one for so beautiful a person as yourself! Believe me, it brings one into contact with unclean things—things too ugly for your sweet hands. It——”
Joan's manner changed abruptly. She came to her feet, with a sudden gesture of bored distaste. Her eyes glanced down at him in contempt.
“Enough of this,” she said. “I thought you might prove somewhat original. You are not.”
Gorgonza was so shocked by this that for an instant he was deprived of speech. He could only stare up at her, his mouth agape. Under the scorn of her eyes, he reddened slowly.
“I understand you perfectly,” went on Joan. “You want to force me out of here—make me go away. Well, I have just one thing to say to you.”
GORGONZA rose. His eyes were ugly. His lips were uglier.
“And that is, madame?”
“Look out for yourself, if you interfere with me. That's all. You may go.”
And Gorgonza went. But, as he departed, the fat toad of a man fairly exuded venom from every pore.
Joan Thurston sat down and stared out over the bay, rather thoughtfully. It was Sunday afternoon; the procession of carriages along the winding, tamarind-bordered drive to the golf links had begun, and from the park drifted up the swinging lilt of the band concert. Behind the girl's chair paused two women, excitedly discussing their tickets in the month's Misericordia lottery. As if their voices had aroused her, Joan rose.
She went to her own room, and sat down at the table. Writing a brief chit, she called a boy and sent the chit to one Lee Kim, who sold silks in a shop near the boat landing.
THROUGHOUT the groaning, tormented bulk of inland China famine and pestilence had been succeeded by more bitter internecine war; and, because of this, the antique buyers were reaping an enormous, an incredible harvest. Heirlooms, cherished in the same family from remote antiquity, were on the market. The agonies of starvation forced men of high lineage, of historic family, to sell their choicest treasures. Most of these things went to America.
The buyers and agents were men of varied types, cherishing in common only one trait—a keen and acute perception. An error could be accurately measured in dollars, and the business of counterfeiting fine Chinese art was in full swing under the patronage of clever Nipponese, so that many a man went home to America poorer, but infinitely wiser.
Among them was no esprit de corps—keen envy and jealousy and hatred were rampant. Into this petty maelstrom had come Joan Thurston, most amazingly possessed of that sixth sense which defines an antique as real or faked. True, she had not been long in China. She did not know the tricks of the trade. She was a mere girl. Yet these hindrances were so thoroughly offset by certain advantages, that before a month was out she was practically blacklisted by other dealers; in effect, a combination was made to drive her out of the business. She was too dangerous.
Joan herself appeared quite indifferent to this action. Most dealers pick up their knowledge here and there; she had studied the Chinese arts systematically. Also, she bore letters from certain merchants of New York's Chinatown and that of San Francisco, which were of inestimable value to her.
On Sunday evening, the evening of.her first day in Macao, Joan Thurston received a visit from the silk merchant, Lee Kim.
He came—a leathery, blinking old man, with a coolie who bore a load of silks to show the foreign lady. For an hour he displayed his wares, and Joan bought some of them. Then Lee Kim ordered the coolie to take the load and the lantern—one carries a light after nightfall in Macao—and to await him below. Left alone, he turned to Joan and bowed.
“I have heard of you,” he said quietly, “from my cousin Lee Yuen, in Hongkong. I am at your service.”
Joan smiled. “Thank you, Lee! I have heard that somewhere in the city or near it, is a famous bird cage, that of the Viceroy P'ao. It was brought from upcountry by one of his descendants, who sold it and was then murdered and robbed on the way home. No one seems to know exactly where it is. I am willing to pay a fair price for it.”
Lee Kim, who obviously was none too keen of wit, regarded Joan blinkingly and slowly, gravely, shook his old head.
“The thing is famous, beautiful, and of great value,” he responded, “but it is not worth the danger involved. Nor is it worth the price of human life. To take life is forbidden.”
“I understand,” said Joan. “Gracious, Lee! I don't intend to murder any one! Tell me.”
Lee Kim shrugged.
“It belongs to me, but I cannot get it,” he said frankly. “I bought it from the murdered man and I hold a bill of sale. I cannot obtain it, for it is now in the house of Dom Manuel Fernaes, outside the walls. Dom Manuel is a friend of Dom Joao de Gorgonza. Dom Manuel will not give it up to me. Gorgonza wishes to buy it from me, but I will not sell to him. It is a deadlock.”
“It is yours?” Joan regarded him in surprise. “But you can easily obtain it by law——”
The old merchant smiled thinly.
“It is written in the book 'Li Lou' that neither virtue nor law can put themselves into practice, however good they may be. I am afraid of Gorgonza and he is afraid of me. He dares not take the thing without a bill of sale, and I cannot obtain it from Dom Manuel. It might be had by murder, but that is forbidden. Only to save another person is murder lawful.”
“YOU mean”—Joan frowned thoughtfully—“that Gorgonza is influential?”
“He and Dom Manuel, yes. He corrupts people, and he panders to the taste of officials in many ways in ways not to be spoken of with beautiful ladies like you. In the Portuguese court I am helpless against him. In the Chinese court I am helpless against Dom Manuel, who is of old Macaense blood, but a very unworthy person; also, Dom Manuel is wealthy.”
“Very well,” said Joan, with her birdlike nod. “I shall come to your shop at nine in the morning, Lee. Make me out a bill of sale and turn over the former one, also, that the title may be clear. I will buy the bird cage from you.”
Lee Kim blinked at her.
“But I cannot sell it! I cannot deliver it to you!”
“I'll attend to the delivery, thanks.” Joan smiled, and under her smile Lee Kim gave up his protests, and departed to his own place. She reflected that he was not too intelligent.
Yet to Lee Kim, as to any unprejudiced observer, it was perfectly clear that this American girl was putting her head into a noose—was taking up arms against insuperable forces. The policy initiated by the great Albuquerque—that of deliberately creating a mixed race had produced men of Gorgonza's type; men in whose veins ran Malaccan, Japanese, Chinese blood, no less than that of ancient grandees. Such men know only the law of their own desires.
Undoubtedly, Lee Kim was conveying a hint, in his oblique fashion, when he quoted the saying of Mencius that neither virtue nor law amounted to anything unless men practiced them. If so, the hint was thrown away; it fell upon barren ground.
At nine the next morning Joan Thurston came into the little silk shop, and Lee Kim bowed low to her. So far is paper profit was concerned, she accomplished a magnificent stroke of business, because under the circumstances Lee Kim took no advantage of her and was glad to get his investment back.
THE bird cage in question was a creation famed in tale and legend, a gift from the Emperor Kang H'si to a viceroy of ages past, and it was said to have consumed the labor of twelve great craftsmen during a space of three years. When Joan left the silk merchant's shop, she owned the bird cage—on paper.
She strolled along the Playa Grande skirting the beautiful bay, glanced idly into the shop windows, and men turned to look after her slender figure. Here in this Asian Monte Carlo, where were concentrated the vice, beauty and gilded splendor of the China coast, this girl stood notably apart. She was clad in an engagingly simple gown of white silk, and silk-banded leghorn hat, her only jewel a pendant of ancient carved lapis that hung by a silk cord at her throat. But it was the personality of the girl that drew all eyes. A passing Sikh, gorgeous in his uniform and his blue-and-white streamered turban, met her cool, blue gaze, and instinctively saluted.
Presently she made up her mind, and summoned a carriage. It was not yet ten, and between ten and four the streets of Macao are emptied of life. This, however was a matter of business.
“You know the house of Dom Manuel Fernaes, outside the town?” she asked. “Take me there, and drive slowly.”
The native driver was stupefied by this command, for he knew the house of Dom Manuel very well indeed. Every one in Macao—and some elsewhere—knew it. That house had recently been the cause of certain official representations from the governor at Hongkong, which did not incommode the Portuguese authorities in the least, especially as the inquiries concerned nothing more important than a vanished Englishwoman. Dom Manuel had an interest in the opium factories, and was the owner of a splendid casino adjoining his residence grounds, and he was not a person to be troubled by inquiries. Since this American girl seemed to know her business, however, the native driver ventured no protest.
As the carriage drove slowly along Joan Thurston enjoyed the streets despite their general lack of shade trees. She enjoyed the high stucco walls, the ancient gates of wrought iron, the coats of arms proudly displayed, the glimpses of tropical gardens. Her fancy was caught by the splendid windows, now of glistening pearl, now of iridescent fish scales from huge, finny monsters; by the people in the street; by the flower sellers and fish peddlers. On high, the glorious façade of a cathedral hung like a jewel against the sky line. Macao was beautiful in her tropic splendor—but beneath the beauty was venom, if one were foolish enough to tempt the fangs.
FOR some time Joan's carriage creaked along the beautiful road that leads to the historic Ma-ko pagoda on the inner bay, and then she suddenly perceived that it had left the road and was winding through a tropical garden, studded with scarlet flame trees. There were no gates, but she did observe a stone pillar beside the road, in the face of which was cut the sacred vajra emblem of the Buddhists. Then the carriage halted beneath the portico of a large, low building of white stone, which was overhung by towering greenery. A Chinese boy appeared, bowed deferentially as she left the carriage and paid the driver, and bowed again as Joan handed him her business card.
“I wish to see Dom Manuel Fernaes on business, if he is in,” she said.
“Please, you come?”
She entered the house, and found herself ushered into a room entirely fitted out in ormolu and buhl of authentic vintage. Watteau panels graced the walls. There was not a sign of China about the room, except that the raw sunlight was filtered through the most exquisitely inlaid mother-of-pearl windows. Joan sat down, holding her white-silk parasol. She was prepared to meet another oily Eurasian; but she was not at all prepared to meet the man who suddenly appeared in the doorway, and looked down at her.
He was a tall, spare man who conveyed an impression of brittle delicacy. His wasted features were painted and rouged, giving the lie to his brilliant, black eyes. Crowning his gray hair was a flat black cap, topped with a button of white jade. He wore a knee-long coat of the most gorgeous yellow imaginable, embroidered with the eight Buddhist emblems; it was girded at the waist by a bright-blue sash, and looped about his wrist was a Buddhist rosary of coral and turquoise. Joan Thurston thought there had been some error, until the man bowed again and addressed her in fluent English.
“Madame, I am Dom Manuel Fernaes. Your visit does me too great honor. Pray consider my house and everything in it at your absolute disposal.”
Joan rose, startled by the man's extraordinary garb, by his painted and emotionless face; she caught at the empty formality of his words, however, and smiled.
“Oh! That's very good of you, Dom Manuel, and I'll take you at your word. I bought a bird cage this morning from a merchant downtown named Lee Kim, and he told me that you had it here, so I called to get it.”
Her smile evoked no response from the painted face. For a moment the black eyes stared at her stonily. Then, to her surprise, Dom Manuel inclined his head in assent.
“I shall send it to your hotel immediately, madame. You will pardon me if I ask for assurance that you are the owner? It is a valuable object, you comprehend——”
Illustration: Lee Kim took the vial and observed that it was only half full of a colorless liquid. “You are wasteful, being a young man,” he said severely
JOAN opened her hand bag and produced the bill of sale from Lee Kim. When Dom Manuel took it, she noted that his fingers were very long and delicate and yellow. He read the Chinese script at a glance, and, with a bow, returned the paper.
“Within ten minutes, madame, it goes to your hotel.”
“But how shall I know it is the right one?” asked Joan pleasantly.
That immobile, painted visage became, if possible, even more frigid.
“Madame, I hold two things in this world sacred: the Living Buddha, and my word. I have given you my word.”
Curiously enough, in spite of everything, Joan believed the man. He went on, without giving her a chance to respond.
“I beg that you will come with me and inspect the cage; there is no other in the whole earth to compare with it. Besides, it is time for my morning pipe—to which I trust you will not object—and I should be only too happy to entertain you. For example, I have a very beautiful shrine which I think you might be interested in. As you have no doubt observed”—the left hand with its pendant rosary rose to sash and coat—“I am a student of Buddhism and have been highly honored by the Dalai Lama. In fact, I have been given the title of ta lama, which means Great Doctor, and is attained by few white men. Will you do me the honor to accompany me, madame?”
“With pleasure,” said Joan.
THIS old and painted man inspired her with wonder and pity, but in no degree with fear, although his immediate compliance with her request was singular enough, since it was evident that his word would be kept. She was intrigued by his childish pride in his Tibetan honors. Obviously, he was wealthy, and money meant little to him; his frigid courtesy was impeccable. The girl's curiosity was aroused, and it was with no thought of danger that she seized the opportunity to behold the wonders that this strange house must contain.
As she accompanied him through rooms and down corridors he pointed out paintings or objects of art to her, but paused not. This old Dom Manuel, in whom the Asiatic blood had come to the surface, was suddenly in a hurry. At the end of a low passage, beyond a door of bronze-studded teak, Joan Thurston perceived the reason for his haste.
She entered a chamber, nearly circular, whose windows were all in the roof. They were panels of iridescent fish scales, flooding the room with a silvery, shimmering, unreal light which was very beautiful.
With neither apology nor excuses, Dom Manuel turned to a magnificent smoking lounge and curled himself up. At his side was a smoking stand holding an opium layout, and at sight of his master a Chinese boy began to prepare a pipe. As the boy handed him the prepared pipe Dom Manuel spoke.
“Examine at your leisure, madame,” he said curtly. For the first time, unaccountably, Joan had a premonition of evil. But, realizing that she had to deal with an abnormal personality, she gave her attention to the treasures at hand. And they were many. The room was filled with such marvels of Chinese art as she had seldom seen.
Directly before her stood the bird cage, suspended from a six-foot dragon pedestal of cloisonné and gilded bronze, in itself a splendid thing. The cage was of ivory bars, each one exquisitely carved, while about the base was a black-lacquer band decorated with flowers in jade appliqué. The equipment, in Chinese fashion, was very ornate. Worm box and tongs were of ivory, studded with gems; the mirror, feed and water cups, and seed chute were of jade or lapis, and about the cage were ornaments of rock amber and various crystals, each elaborately carved. The suspension holder and chain were of silver, jade, and amber.
Even as she gazed, Joan heard Dom Manuel clap his hands. The first pipe was finished, and two servants responded to the call. She watched them approach the bird cage and take it from the pedestal.
“My word is my word, madame,“ said Dom Manuel, taking a second pipe. “The thing goes to your hotel. If you will inspect the ivory shrine, yonder, you may find it remarkable.”
The girl turned. Among the treasures which filled the place the predominant object was a large shrine of carved ivory figures, applied to a base of cloisonné bronze, which stood against the farther wall. The shrine was eight feet in height, and four in diameter, and the central panels stood open like doors. Joan crossed a rug of silk and woven gold, and again heard the dry voice bebehind her.
“You may go inside, if you wish. The Buddha was a gift from the Dalai Lama himself. It is very old.”
On closer approach, Joan perceived that the metal base of the shrine was set into the cement of the floor. The sides and panels were not solid, but were of pierced bronze and ivory. Looking through the doorway, she perceived a smaller shrine set on a shelf against the farther side; it was closed. Stepping inside the cell, for such it was, she went to this small shrine, and, opening the doors in front, displayed a small bronze Buddha studded with turquoise and coral. Then, as she looked at this figure, a slight noise attracted her attention, and she turned.
The doors of the cell had swung shut behind her. As she glanced through the openings, she beheld another figure standing beside the smoking sofa. It was Gorgonza, and he was laughing heartily.
“A pretty bird in a pretty cage!” he said in his oily tones.
Joan stood motionless, paralyzed with sudden fright and horror. Somehow, in some way, she had been trapped; yet the thing was incredible. Through the openings in the panels of the cell she could see and be seen.
Illustration: “My word is my word,” said Dom Manuel. “The thing goes to your hotel.” For the first time, unaccountably, Joan had a premonition of evil
Dom Manuel handed his pipe to the servant, made a gesture, and the boy departed. She saw the painted old face turn to Gorgonza, and crack in a horrible smile.
“My friend, you are satisfied?” said Dom Manuel. “I have kept my word to you. The pretty bird is caged. I am not sure, however, that I shall give her up to you.”
The smile vanished from Gorgonza's face.
“You're not?” he snarled. “But you promised——”
“To cage her. She is caged.” Again Dom Manuel snickered in his dry, metallic fashion. “I said nothing about giving her to you, however; and she pleases me. But no matter! Sit and join me in refreshment, my dear Joao. We can settle this affair at leisure.”
Gorgonza glanced around the room.
“Th cage!” he cried out, his eyes widening. “It is gone!”
“To the young lady's hotel. I promised her. Later, in a day or so, it will be sent back to me—she will give an order for her clothes and other belongings, you comprehend?”
“I comprehend that you are a fool!” burst out Gorgonza. “You and your promises! Bah!”
Dom Manuel seemed to enjoy his irritation. Perhaps the painted old man was delighted to find that he had it in his power to infuriate his friend. He clapped his hands, and, when the servant appeared, ordered rare Chinese wines and cakes. The pipe had soothed him, put him in a mood of rare good humor. He slid from the bench, stood upright, and laid a slender hand on Gorgonza's arm.
“Tut, tut!” he said gently. “Come, let us examine our bird! Then I shall play fair with you. We shall toss a coin—eh? After all, shall a woman come between us?”
Gorgonza stood silent, his dark features sullen, until a smile touched his thin, Chinese lips.
“True,” he said, and nodded. He passed his hand within Dom Manuel's arm, and the two men came forward toward the ivory cell, peering at the girl within. The face of Dom Manuel was expressionless under its paint, but his glittering eyes were terribly alive and eloquent; the oily smirking visage of Gorgonza held a leering mockery which found echo in his voice.
“Ha, pretty lady—pretty American lady!” said he. “Come, proud one, beat your wings against the cage and amuse us!”
Joan was frightened. Until now she had not moved, but suddenly she flung her arms against the door panels, frantically hoping to burst them outward. She found them solid, held by some fastening on the outside; solid metal, unquivering. Under her attack, one of the carved ivory figures—which covered the inside as well as the exterior of the cell—fell to the floor. Dom Manuel leaned forward to see it the better.
“The same one that the accursed Englishwoman knocked off last month—you remember?” he observed in a conversational tone. “Really, I must have it replaced more firmly.”
Gorgonza did not take his gloating eyes from the girl's figure. She had conquered her frantic terror, and now stood frozen, appalled, yet in command of herself. At length she spoke, forcing her voice to its usual tone.
“You shall be punished for this—you two! You cannot keep me here and not expect to answer for it.”
Gorgonza sneered. Then, to her astonishment, the girl perceived that Dom Manuel was nodding, as if in thoughtful consideration of her words. His eyes became veiled, and he turned to Gorgonza.
“My friend, that is perfectly true. I am afraid that for a moment I was tempted to forget the eight-fold path of virtue, and the punishment that follows upon the yielding to desire. I confess the fault, with humility. Although the woman is very tempting, I shall put her away from me.”
JOAN'S eyes widened. The incredible fact beat in upon her brain that this man was absolutely ignoring the crime that he was committing, as such; he was impervious to any objective reasoning, and was impelled solely by inward considerations. She faced the terrible truth that here she was not dealing with any man, as she knew the sex, but with a creature whose motives and orbit were far outside her ken. And in that instant she was far more terrified by the painted old man in his lamaistic robes, than by the leering, sensual Gorgonza.
With Gorgonza she could cope; she was even prepared for him. But before Dom Manuel she was helpless.
“You say well,” said Gorgonza, drawing out a cigarette and lighting it. He brushed his mustache with his thumb, and let his eyes dwell upon Joan. “You say well, Dom Manuel. Then this girl is mine?”
“My sacred word upon it,” said Dom Manuel, and turned. “Come—a glass of wine?”
Dom Manuel retraced his steps to the table on which the servant had laid a silver tray bearing wine and cups and cakes; the Chinese boy pushed out a temple armchair of crimson lacquer for him, and another for Gorgonza. The latter, however, moved closer to the ivory cell.
“Ha, my pretty one, you have heard!” he said, smiling at Joan. “Now, will you join us over the wine? There is no use in making a noise, I assure you; scream, if you desire—others have screamed before this! Come, be sensible. Join us, say the word, and all goes well. Refuse, and you waken to-morrow morning in my house!”
QUIVERING with anger and disgust rather than with fright, Joan pressed the spring in the handle of her parasol. Swift as light, the foot-long steel blade leaped out and drove at the man's face, framed in the opening of the cell panel. But Gorgonza, catlike, had discerned the motion, and swerved from the thrust.
He drew back, cursing, furious, pouring out a flood of vile oaths at the defiant figure of the girl. Dom Manuel, seeing this byplay, leaned back in his chair laughing.
“Ho, Joao, she nearly had you there—the tigress! She will be more amusing than that fool Englishwoman, eh? Come, come, forget her, my friend! Join me in a glass, and presently we shall enjoy a pipe, and afterward we shall spray a little perfume into that handsome ivory cage—and the little bird will go to sleep. Eh?”
Still cursing, Gorgonza stumbled over to the chair and seated himself. The Chinese servant poured wine into beautiful cups of rhinoceros horn, set in silver mounts. He was a deft, impassive yellow man, and in his silent figure Joan Thurston read the same horrible menace of Asia that she had uncovered in Dom Manuel. She put out a hand to the ivory wall of her prison, a sudden trembling weakness upon her.
Dom Manuel lifted his cup toward the shrine.
“To your happiness, madame!” he said mockingly.
Gorgonza, showing his white teeth, lifted his cup likewise, and joined in the laugh. Even the Chinese servant allowed a smile to curve his thin, flat lips.
Lee Kim, the silk merchant, unbarred his shutters at four that afternoon and opened his shop for business, as usual; then he retired to the little back room to finger his abacus and check over his books. Presently the coolie whom he had left in the shop appeared in the doorway.
“Honorable and venerable master, your esteemed cousin, Lee Dock Hang, who is number-one room boy at the great hotel wishes to speak with you.”
“Let him enter,” said Lee Kim, laying down the abacus. “And serve us with tea.”
Lee Dock Hang entered, and greeted his elder cousin with much protracted ceremony. It was perhaps ten minutes before the visitor got down to business. Then he spoke his errand in a few words.
“Sir, the foreign woman returned to the hotel. The bird cage was there, well wrapped. She ordered it sent down to the Hongkong boat—with her luggage.”
“She was well?” inquired Lee Kim, blinking.
“She was well, honorable sir.”
Lee Kim drank his tea, and his visitor departed ceremoniously. For a little while Lee Kim sat blinking over the cup and smoking a tiny steel-bowled pipe.
After a little, the coolie reappeared in the doorway.
“Venerable master, your nephew, Lee Far Lung, who is number-one house boy at the house of Dom Manuel Fernaes, wishes to speak with you.”
“LET the son of my father's son enter,” said Lee Kim. Lee Far Lung entered and bowed respectfully. He also went through the ceremony of greeting with great care, and Lee Kim was meticulous in his responses. Presently, when he was seated, Lee Far Lung took from an inner pocket a small vial, elaborately carven from amethyst, and stoppered with red coral. He placed it before Lee Kim, who observed that it was only half full of a colorless liquid.
“You are wasteful, being a young man,” said Lee Kim, in severe accents. “Did I not say that three drops would suffice?”
“Venerable brother of my father,” he rejoined, “the wine was served in cups of rhinoceros horn, which, as every one knows, absorb whatever poison is placed in them. Therefore, I judged it essential to make no error.”
Lee Kim reflected on this, then he nodded.
“Your statement is true. Yet the essence of dissolving death is very precious, and half of it is gone. Even allowing for double doses to each foreign devil, so much would not be required. Where is the remainder?”
“Honorable sir, I placed a few drops in a tiny bottle. This bottle I put into the pocket of Dom Joao de Gorgonza. Thus the foreign devils will think he was responsible for the poisoning, and had drugged his own cup by mistake.”
The face of Lee Kim cleared. “You have done well,” he affirmed. 'And the foreign woman?”
“Honorable sir, I released her and sent her to the hotel in the carriage of Dom Manuel. I stated that this was at his command. The servants did not question it.”
When he was again alone, Lee Kim put away the amethyst bottle in a secret place, then took brush and ink, and wrote a letter on auspicious red paper to his cousin Lee Yuen, in Hongkong. When he had sealed this letter he picked up his pipe, and stuffed it with tobacco.
“I trust that my cousin Lee Yuen will be satisfied with my humble efforts to help his friends,” he murmured, and sucked rather stupidly at the pipestem.
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.
Public domainPublic domainfalse