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Far from the Madding Crowd(chapter14)

2006-07-08 15:50

  “I have heard much about you,” he said, startled to hear that they were members of the Red Flower Society. “But I had thought that your honourable society was based in southern China. I wonder if you could tell me why you have come to visit our Lord? I am afraid he went out a short while ago.” Song carefully weighed up the visitors and wondered what their intentions were.

  Wen, meanwhile, was becoming angry at Song's coolness. “Since Lord Zhou is not at home, we will excuse ourselves,” he said. “We came at an inopportune time.” He stood up using a chair for support.

  “There's no rush,” Song replied. “Please stay and have a meal before leaving.” He turned and whispered a few words to an attendant.

  Wen insisted they would go.

  “Well, please wait a while first, otherwise our Lord may blame me for neglecting honoured guests.” As he spoke, the attendant re-appeared carrying a tray on which were two large silver ingots. Song took the tray.

  “Master Wen,” he said. “You have come a long way to visit our humble manor and we have not had a chance to look after you properly. Please accept this as a favour to me for your travelling expenses.”

  Wen, filled with rage, picked up both of the ingots with his left hand. “We did not come to your honourable manor to extort money,” he said. “You underestimate us, friend Song.”

  Song quickly protested that he would not dare to suggest such a thing.

  Wen laughed coldly and placed the ingots back on the tray. “Goodbye,” he said.

  Song looked down and started in fright. With just one hand, Wen had crushed the two ingots together into a flat cake of silver. He led the three toeards the gate, offering profuse apologies as he went. Wen ignored him. Three attendants led their horses up, and they mounted immediately.

  Luo Bing took out a gold ingot many times more valuable than the silver offered by Song and gave it to the attendant holding her horse. “Thank you for your trouble,” she said. “Here's a little something for the three of you to have a drink.” For a moment, the attendants did not seem to believe their luck, then they began thanking her over and over again. Luo Bing smiled in reply.

  Just as they were about to ride off, a rider galloped up, leapt off his horse and saluted Wen with his fists. “Please come into our humble manor and make yourselves comfortable,” he said.

  “We do not wish to trouble you,” Wen replied. “We will visit again another time.”

  “We passed you on the road a while ago and our Lord guessed you were coming to the manor,” the man continued. “He would have liked to turn back, but he has important business to attend to. So he ordered me to come to receive you. He is eager to make your acquaintance. He said he would definitely return tonight, and insisted that you stay at our humble manor.”

  Wen's anger melted as he heard the sincerity in the newcomer's voice, and they went back into the manor. The man introduced himself as Meng, Zhou's senior pupil, as Song stood to one side looking very uncomfortable. Guests and host sat down and fresh tea was served. An attendant whispered something to Meng who stood up and bowed before Luo Bing.

  “Our lady invites you to go into the inner hall to rest,” he said.

  A maidservant led Luo Bing through a passageway and a woman in her forties strode out and grasped Luo Bing's hand familiarly.

  “They told me just now that some members of the Red Flower Society had arrived and then left again. But you've come back and saved face for me. Our Lord will be so happy! Now, don't rush away. You can stay for a few days. Look, all of you,” she said, turning to her maidservants. “Look how beautiful this girl is! She puts our girls to shame.”

  Luo Bing thought the woman was rather indiscreet. “What is your name, Madame?” she asked. “My husband is surnamed Wen.”

  “See how muddle-headed I am!” the woman said. “I'm so happy at seeing such a pretty girl that I've gone silly!”

  “This is our lady,” one of the maidservants explained.

  The woman was Lord Zhou's second wife. His first had borne two sons, but both had died in fights. This second wife had given birth to a daughter, Zhou Qi, a wild girl of eighteen always getting into trouble, and it had seemed as if Zhou was destined to have no more sons. But in his fifty-fourth year, another was unexpectedly born. The couple were overjoyed to gain a son so late in life.

  “Call the young master in quickly,” Madame Zhou said after seating herself comfortably. “Let Madame Wen see him.”

  A lively, good-looking child emerged from the inner rooms and Luo Bing judged from his bearing that he had already received several years of training in the martial arts. He kowtowed

  towards Luo Bing, who took hold of his hand and asked him his name and age.

  “My name is Zhou Yingjie and I'm ten this year,” the child replied.

  Luo Bing unfastened the pearl bracelet from her wrist and gave it to him.

  “We have come from far away, and I don't have anything nice to give you, but you can put these pearls round the edge of your cap,” she said. Madame Zhou protested, but to no avail.

  While they were talking, one of the maidservants rushed in crying: “Mistress Wen! Master Wen has fainted!”

  Madame Zhou quickly gave orders to fetch a doctor while Luo Bing ran back to her husband. Wen's injuries were already serious, and he had used up a great deal of his remaining strength to squeeze the silver ingots together. Wen was unconscious, his face drained of colour. Luo Bing ran to him, calling his name over and over again. Slowly, he regained consciousness.

  Meng dispatched an attendant to report to Lord Zhou that the guests were settled in. As he turned back inside after seeing the attendant gallop off, he noticed a figure dart behind a willow tree. He made no sign that he had seen anything unusual, but slowly walked back into the manor and ran up to the watchtower. After a while, he saw a a short man creep furtively out from behind one willow tree and run behind another.

  Meng called for Lord Zhou's young son and whispered some instructions to him. Then he ran out of the manor gate, laughing and shouting: “Little brother, I'll pretend to be afraid of you, all right?”

  The boy followed close behind, shouting: “Where do you think you're running off to? You won't admit defeat, will you? Come here and kowtow before me!”

  Meng bowed and mockingly begged for mercy. The boy made a grab for him and Meng ran straight for the willow behind which the intruder was hiding. He charged straight into the man, knocking him flat.

  It was the Zhen Yuan Agency's Lead Escort Tong. He had seen Wen and the others leave the inn and had followed them, determined to prove wrong those who said he was good for nothing but eating and talking. Tong had few abilities, but he was quick-witted and knew immediately that Meng had planned the collision to test his kung fu, so he let his whole body go loose,pretending that he knew none at all. Since his kung fu was mediocre, pretending to know none at all was not difficult.

  “Excuse me,” said Tong. “Is this the road to Sandaogou?” He tried to get up, but cried out in pain: “Ai-ya! My arm!”

  “I'm very sorry,” Meng said. “You're not hurt, are you? Please come into the manor and I'll have a look at you. We have some excellent medicinal ointments.”

  Tong was powerless to refuse. Meng helped him up and led him into an ante-room.

  “Please undo your clothes and let me examine your wounds,” Meng said. He felt around Tong's body, testing him. When an enemy's fingers touch fatal spots, a kung fu initiate would be forced to flinch.

  “Heroic Uncle Tong is not afraid to die,” Tong thought. “Act the lamb until the end!” Meng pressed the 'Solar Yuedao' points on his temples and toughed other Yuedao points on his chest and armpits, making Tong giggle.

  “Ai-ya! Stop that! I'm very ticklish,” he said.

  They were all fatal points but Tong seemed unconcerned. Meng decided he really didn't know any kung fu. “From his accent, he isn't a local,” he thought, still suspicious. “Could he be a petty thief, I wonder?”

  Meng could not detain Tong without authority, so he walked him back towards the gate. Tong peered about him as they walked through the manor, trying to discover to where Wen and the others were. Meng decided he must be a scout for a gang of thieves.

  “Be careful, my friend,” he said. “Remember where you are.”

  Tong looked around in mock awe. “Such a big place! It looks like a great temple. Except there's no Buddha.”

  He asked Tong what his business was in the area.

  Meng escorted him over the drawbridge and laughed coldly. “Goodbye friend,” he said, clapping Tong heavily on the shoulder. “Come and visit us again sometime.”

  The pain from the blow went straight to Tong's marrow. Swearing profusely, he found his horse and galloped back to the Antong Inn in Sandaogou. As he entered the room, he saw Master Zhang, Officer Wu and the agency men together with seven or eight men he didn't know. They were in the midst of a discussion on where Wen Tailai might have escaped to. No one could think of an answer, and their faces were gloomy.

  Tong smugly related how he had followed Wen, naturally omitting the part about his encounter with Meng.

  Zhang was delighted. “Let's go,” he said, adding with uncustomary warmth: “Brother Tong, you lead the way.”

  The whole group immediately set out for Iron Gall Manor, rubbing their hands in anticipation as they went. Tong boasted extravagantly of how he had used Lightness kung fu, and of the risks he had taken in tracking Wen. “This is an assignment from the Emperor himself, so Uncle Tong went all out against the renegades,” he said.

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