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Thrilling Mystery, May 1941
Author of “Fulfillment,” “The Saki of Hashimo,” etc.
When the Spirit of Old China Demanded Its
New Year’s Toll, Chung Lee Paid in Full!
HE New Year’s Day was drawing
to a close in Chinatown. Lights
were coming on in the narrow
streets and in the shop windows. The
winter wind was blowing from the east, as
if to bring something of the spirit of Old
China to the western world on this day of
celebration. With the going down of the
sun, in all Chinatown there was no man
who owed any other man anything. For
this was the day of the paying of all debts.
Chung Lee was brewing jasmine tea
for himself in his little room back of his
theater. The coals glowed to a ruby red in
the brazier and the steam began to jet from
the spout of the little copper kettle. Chung
Lee set two cups on the taboret and
dropped the fragrant leaves into them.
Evidently he was expecting a visitor.
He made no move to remove the
kettle. His old eyes, staring at the glowing
coals, held a far away look. His face,
reflected in the burnished copper as in a
mirror, was sober and sad.
A knock sounded on the door.
“Come in,” he said in English,
knowing who his visitor would be.
A girl entered, gestured to him to keep
his seat, went up to him and held out her
hand. He took it in both of his.
“Happy New Year, Chung Lee,” she
said in a low, musical voice.
He released her hand, clasped one of
his closed hands in the palm of the other,
and gave them a slight shake in the
Chinese gesture of good will.
“Happy New Year, Edwina Grant,” he
responded. Her ears caught the overtones
of melancholy in his voice and her frank
eyes sought his face. But she did not
speak. She took off her hat and her nutria
coat. There was a lissomeness and grace to
her movements that smacked of the
dancer. As a matter of fact, she was not
clad in street dress but in costume.
She sat down and took the cup which
Chung Lee handed to her, and they sipped
the delicious brew in silence. They were a
strange combination, the old Chinese and
the American girl—the girl the very
essence of modernity, the Chinese like a
man out of some ancient dynasty.
Yet they were at ease with each other.
This Chinese who bore within his heart
and mind the wisdom of the ancient sages
could nevertheless tell an American joke
in a manner that would have won the
approval of Mark Twain.
But he was in no mood for telling
jokes now.
“It is kind of you to visit me before the
performance,” he said.
“Not everyone is permitted the
opportunity of drinking Chung Lee’s
jasmine tea,” Edwina replied, courteous in
the Chinese manner, yet with a trace of
teasing in the remark.
“Was it for my tea that you came?”
Chung Lee asked, smiling slightly.
“It was to talk with a man of wisdom
who has taught me much,” the girl
“Thank you,” said the old man. “In
China, reverence for elders is in the warp
and woof of Chinese life. In this country,
while young people no doubt love the old
folks—in fact many of your popular songs
deal with this theme—they have not the
patience to remain long in their company.
At any rate, I am glad that you are here. I
am lonely always, but on this day of the
paying of old debts I am lonelier than on
other days.”
Whether it was the reflection of the
glowing coals, or perhaps an internal surge
of emotion, Edwina could not be sure. But
fire seemed to flash up in Chung Lee’s
eyes—a fire that burned beneath his
gentleness as the latent forces of a temblor
slumber beneath the good earth. It was no
new experience for Edwina Grant to see
that flame leap up and die.
In her contact with Chung Lee, at
whose theater, she learned Oriental dance
forms without cost to herself save her own
occasional participation in the
performances, she had been vouchsafed a
glimpse, every now and then, of the
Chinese’s secret self. To her it had been
given to know that beneath Lee’s old age
and Buddhistic compassion, there still
lurked the Chinese warrior!
“How long is it,” she asked softly,
“since Fay Lon—went away?”
HE old Chinese’s face was
impassive again.
“I do not know if you mean to ask me
when my daughter left my home or left
this life,” he said quietly. “For among the
euphemisms for the fact of death, ‘went
away,’ is one. Since language, a product of
human life, should never be soiled by fear,
I have ever expressed the fact of death
with the simple words, ‘to die.’ Therefore
must I answer your question in two ways.”
The old man bowed his head, but went
on speaking.
“My daughter ‘went away’ exactly
three years ago today. She ‘died’—no man
knows exactly when. The wisest of
medical examiners could not tell, at the
time she was taken from the river, how
long before that she had given herself to
“Tell me, Chung Lee,” the girl said
softly, “do you cherish anger in your heart
against her? It is not for the young to
counsel the old, but—”
Chung Lee stopped her.
“There is anger in my heart, but it is
not against Little Flower. There is more
than anger; there is hate, but its direction
lies elsewhere. The anger is against Chung
Lee, an unwise father, too strict with his
daughter. The hate”—Chung Lee’s voice
deepened and his body shook—”is against
Joseph Carmen, who took her from me!
Because I was too strict in the matter of
her marrying the man of my choice, her
rebellion took a perverted form and she
convinced herself that the tawdry tinsel
that overlaid this criminally-minded man
was the pure gold of romance. So he took
her from me, and when, disillusioned and
broken, she went from him, it was not to
her father’s bosom but to the river’s.”
Chung Lee set down his cup.
“This has been the day of the paying of
the debts,” he said somberly. “So it was
last year, and so the year before that. The
years spin on. But that debt remains
unpaid, weighing heavily upon me. It must
be paid, and there is something in me that
tells me”—his voice dropped—”that it will
be paid. . . .”
His hand reached up and back, and,
without turning, he took a short sword
down from the wall. He drew it from the
scabbard and ran his thumb with a featherlight touch along its blade.
“This debt,” he murmured, “will only
be wiped out in blood—mine or
His eyes closed, but he went on
“In ancient days, when my ancestors
paid debts of this kind, they contrived to
make the payment match the offense. One
forebear of mine had a nephew who was
taken captive by the lord of a neighboring,
province and made a slave. He became a
weaver of tapestries. But so fine was the
work, and so miserly was the lord in
allowing him oil for light to work by, that
the nephew went blind. Subsequently, by
the fortunes of war, the lord became
captive of my forebear.
“My forebear cut the lord’s eyes from
their sockets and gave them to his nephew
to eat. ‘Thou hast devoured, in thy greed,
the eyes of this boy,’ my forebear said.
‘Therefore let thine own eyes by devoured
by him whom thou hast offended.’ So it
was done, and there was no longer a debt
between them.”
E paused, went on:
“Again, there was a cruel
magistrate who condemned one of my
ancestors to the salt mines, stultifying
justice by accepting a bribe. In the salt
mines my ancestor was whipped even as
he worked, and the sweat and the salt ran
into the bleeding welts together, until my
ancestor prayed for death. But he was
strong and served out his term.
“Then my ancestor, who was not a
cruel man but an honest one who could not
bear to be in debt, made captive the
magistrate, and stripped him to his welllarded waist. Then he lashed him with a
whip of nine straps tipped with iron. And
my ancestor then, weeping even as he did
so, because he was not a cruel man,
patiently, rubbed salt into the many
Chung Lee stopped short, observing
that Edwina was trembling.
“It was not my wish to harrow you,”
he said softly. “The men of old paid their
debts, and I must pay mine. And even
though I may not be able to pay in kind as
they did, still I know that I will pay it.”
Edwina Grant shivered.
“You say ‘will,’ ” she said. “I’ve often
wondered why you never actively went in
search of Carmen. I don’t understand.”
“Carmen will return,” the old man
said. .
“How can you be so sure?”
“The certainty is within me,” Chung
Lee replied enigmatically. “But come, let
us talk of something else. You have been
on the streets of Chinatown for many
hours today. Did you enjoy the celebration
as much as on previous years?”
“No,” she said decisively.
He showed no surprise at this
seemingly unexpected response but waited
for her to continue. And somehow Edwina
Grant felt that they were not talking about
something else at all, but about the same
“No,” she repeated. “I don’t know
what it was, but it seemed different this
year. There were the same crowds, the
same dragons, the same grotesqueries and
masks. But I seemed every now and then
to sense a false note in the merriment.
Something seemed to be present that had
no business being there. It was like
hearing discords in music, or seeing an
unnatural color in a painting, or an
awkward movement in a dance.
Something didn’t belong.”
“Alien presences, perhaps?” he
suggested without levity.
She looked at him, startled, but his
face betrayed nothing. Again she felt a
shiver course up and down her spine.
“You see, Edwina,” he went on, “I did
not enjoy it, either, and perhaps for the
same reasons. We are two persons,
Edwina, who have sensitively tuned
perceptions. That is why we are such good
friends and never bore each other. Yes,
there was something wrong with today’s
celebration. A false note, you call it. Let us
leave it at that and turn to more practical
matters. Tonight’s performance in the
theater, for example.”
GAIN Edwina had the feeling that
they were not changing the subject
at all, that it was still the same. That it was
of one thing and one thing only that Chung
Lee was speaking and both were thinking,
terribly symbolized by the remembered
sight that beat beneath their inward eyes—
the once lovely body of Fay Lon, waterlogged and fish-ravaged, lying on a slab in
the refrigerated dead-chamber of the
“First,” Chung Lee said, “there will be
a short play of the Mongol Dynasty set to
music, to remind our audience that China
has a past. Then you, with your new dance
expressing the struggle of the Chinese
people against the invading armies of
Nippon will show the audience China’s
heroic present. Then, the counting of the
“The what?” Edwina broke in.
“An item that was not on the original
program,” the old man said smoothly.
“Today, as you know, saw the settling of
all money-debts. But instead of, as
formerly, paying the moneys over to the
individuals entitled to them, all moneys
representing debts have been deposited
with me and now repose in my safe. Every
creditor has agreed to contribute onefourth of his collected debt to China.
“My people like ceremony. So we are
making a ceremony of the counting of the
money. And we are in hopes that through
the artistry of your interpretative dancing,
the creditors and the other members of the
audience will be moved to open their
purses still wider. In fact, my dear, I am
quite sure they will.”
“But isn’t it dangerous?” Edwina
protested. “So much money in one place.
You should have a police guard.”
“There will be no police,” Chung Lee
said. “We shall not need police. More
Edwina, staring at him, shook her
head. His face was in repose, but his old
eyes, staring back at her, glowed with
something deadly. For the first time since
she had known him, she was afraid of him.
Chung Lee’s theater was crowded that
night, every seat taken, and all standing
room occupied as well. The audience was
in festive regalia and some of them still
wore the grotesque heads and masks with
which they had paraded in the streets.
The place was filled with the sound of
their chatter, yet in that chatter, running
deep, there seemed to be something
different from the usual good cheer—a
note of apprehension, an anticipation of
menace, a foreshadowing of terror. And
this merged naturally with the doings on
the stage when the curtain went up.
At the edge of the rice field, the
princess met the peasant. No speech
passed between them, but in pantomime
they expressed their hopeless love. The
rice stalks parted, revealing a face. The
two did not see the face and the stalks
came together again. But the audience
knew that the spy had gone off to report to
the warlord.
The curtain fell, rose again. The
princess was the captive of the warlord.
Once again she rejected his suit. The
warlord gave orders that she was to die.
The manner of her death would be
horrible. In the warlord’s court was a
circular pool, and out of its depths rose a
slimy octopus.
Two slaves seized the girl, cast her to
the octopus. The poor young farmer
entered now. He cast himself into the pool
and the lovers died together. The curtain
The audience was silent, did not
applaud. The poor farmer had chosen to
die. It was a bad choice. A better choice
would have been to fight. The audience
understood that. But there was also
something sinister in its silence.
Once again the curtain rose, to the
music made by a dulcimer with sixteen
sets of strings played with two bamboo
beaters. Also there were flutes and twostringed violins, cymbals and drums. And
to this music, Edwina Grant danced.
N her dance the Chinese farmer no
longer chose to die. Instead he fought
his Japanese oppressors. And it was not
one farmer, but millions, symbolized by
the great dragon that came from out the
green-curtain background and hovered
Edwina Grant danced with fear in her
heart, not knowing whence the fear came.
Her vision was dimmed by the footlights,
yet she made out Chung Lee, sitting on the
middle aisle in the front row. His face
looked ghastly. Vainly she sought in that
face some recognition of her. But Chung
Lee was staring at her as at a stranger.
And suddenly all was commotion.
With a horrific discord, the music stopped.
Abruptly there was a presence on the stage
other than Edwina Grant. An arm reached
from behind, a white hand closed roughly
over her mouth, and she was jerked
backward. Another arm shot beneath her
own, and she saw a hand that held an
A thrill of terror ran through her. She
could not see the man behind her, yet she
knew that her body was being used as a
For the first time since the first curtain
had gone up, a voice sounded from the
stage, rough and evil and murderous. And
it was the voice of a white man.
“Everything’s under control. Open the
safe, Chung Lee!”
Chung Lee had risen. Clasped in his
right fist was the short sword Edwina
Grant had seen him test with his thumb.
There was a strange rustling, a strange
moving in the audience, and from the
stage it was difficult to make out what was
happening. Above the shuffling sounds,
Chung Lee’s voice rose in almost a chant:
“Collect your debt, Joseph Carmen!”
And he raised the short sword. The
eyes of Joseph Carmen were suddenly shot
with a savage perplexity. He was trying to
make out what was happening out front
and was finding it difficult. Something
caught his eye and his automatic spouted
flame. But whether or not the bullet had
struck human flesh he could not tell.
“Put down the shiv, old fool, before I
blast you!” Carmen shouted, brandishing
the gun.
The old man drew back his arm to
strike. The girl stared at him in terror. For
as he was gazing with fiery eyes not at
Carmen but at her own body, as if she and
not Carmen was to receive the blow. Even
Carmen saw that, and he cried out:
“You crazy fool! If you cut loose with
that, I’ll make you kill the girl!”
Chung Lee’s voice rose shrilly.
“So be it!” he shouted wildly. “The
blade is long! Through her to you!”
And the fanatical old man, brooking no
obstacle between himself and his longsought vengeance, his eyes locked with the
unbelieving eyes of Edwina Grant, drove
the sword with all his might into the
abdomen of the girl with whom he had so
recently sipped the precious jasmine tea!
With a hoarse shout, anxious only to
avoid that deadly blade which, piercing the
girl, could still pierce and kill him as well,
Carmen bounded back. The stricken girl
slumped, leaving Carmen exposed. He
swung his automatic around to level on the
old man, but too late! The sword flashed in
the air and its tip plunged into Carmen’s
heart. He died instantly.
The commotion, the commotion that
was so strangely quiet, still went on in the
audience. And at last its meaning grew
clear. Clusters of Chinese men had
surrounded individual men, stripped them
of their heads and masks and weapons.
The process had commenced upon the
very instant of Carmen’s appearance on
the stage.
Not a shot had been fired save
Carmen’s single one. Carmen was dead,
and his white aides were prisoners of the
quiet Chinese who had carried out their
assignments so efficiently.
AY LON was avenged. But at what
cost! The motionless body of Edwina
But Edwina Grant was stirring. She sat
up dazedly and looked down at her waist.
There was no rip in the dress, no blood.
Chung Lee knelt beside her, took her
“Forgive me,” he murmured. “I had
not intended you to go through such an
ordeal, but things arranged themselves in
that special way after I had arranged the
general scheme.”
“You—you stabbed—” she could not
go on.
“No,” he said gently. “Even when I
plunged the sword seemingly at your
body, as though to seek in your death
another’s, you should still not have
believed that I would harm you. The
sword—I will show you some day how it
works, when the blood is off it. I will only
say now that the blade is not a single piece
but composed of many pieces cunningly
fitted so that it may be collapsed to any
dimension. The hilt is equipped with little
buttons each attached to its special spring,
and by pressing the right ones, the sword
can be shortened to any length desired. A
convenient device for a theatrical
performance where realism is desired.”
They rose together. He sought her eyes
again. “You have not said that you forgive
me,” he murmured.
She thought a moment, shook her
head. His face saddened. Then all at once
it was full of happiness, for she was
“It is I who must ask forgiveness of
you, for doubting you even—even—Well,
let us each forgive the other. But how did
you arrange all this? You seem to have
known that Carmen would come.”
“It can be said that I lured him here,”
Chung Lee said simply. “I did not know
where he was, nor did the police. But you
have a word for it—the grapevine—and
that is how it was done. Word was sent out
over the country. In every city and hamlet
where there were Chinese, or even a single
Chinese, the word entered to find Carmen.
And when he was found, to implant in his
mind the idea that a big haul was to be had
and why. Carmen, who had always made a
specialty of preying upon the Chinese, was
almost certain to rise to the bait.”
“But his men?” Edwina asked. “How
could you be sure you could control that
part of it?”
“They were all spotted—that is the
right word, isn’t it?—almost as soon as
they entered Chinatown. And from that
moment, not a single one of them was ever
out of sight of one or more Chinese. Even
as they sat in the audience, disguised in
their festive regalia, each one was known.
And when the time came, my people acted
quickly, quietly, and skillfully.”
His voice rose as he faced the
audience. “I thank you all,” he said
simply. “I, too, on this day of our New
Year, no longer have any debts.”
And Edwina Grant and Chung Lee
bowed together to the audience. The
performance was over.

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