“The reproach is easily removed,” replied Shan Tien hospitably. “Join the circle of our refined felicity and hear at full length by what means the ingenious Chang Tao—”
“There are moments when one despairs before the spectacle of authority thus displayed,” murmured Ming-shu, his throat thickening with acrimony. “Understand, pre-eminence,” he continued more aloud, “that not this one’s absence but your own presence is the distressing feature, as being an obstacle in the path of that undeviating justice in which our legal system is embedded. From the first moment of our encountering it had been my well-intentioned purpose that loyal confidence should be strengthened and rebellion cowed by submitting this opportune but otherwise inoffensive stranger to a sordid and degrading end. Yet how shall this beneficent example be attained if on every occasion—”
“Your design is a worthy and enlightened one,” interposed the Mandarin, with dignity. “What you have somewhat incapably overlooked, Ming-shu, is the fact that I never greet this intelligent and painstaking young man without reminding him of the imminence of his fate and of his suitability for it.”
“Truth adorns your lips and accuracy anoints your palate,” volunteered Kai Lung.
“Be this as the destinies permit, there is much that is circuitous in the bending of events,” contended Ming-shu stubbornly. “Is it by chance or through some hidden tricklage that occasion always finds Kai Lung so adequately prepared?”
“It is, as the story of Chang Tao has this day justified, and as this discriminating person has frequently maintained, that the one in question has a story framed to meet the requirement of every circumstance,” declared Shan Tien.
“Or that each requirement is subtly shaped to meet his preparation,” retorted Ming-shu darkly. “Be that as it shall perchance ultimately appear, it is undeniable that your admitted weaknesses—”
“Weaknesses!” exclaimed the astonished Mandarin, looking around the room as though to discover in what crevice the unheard-of attributes were hidden. “This person’s weaknesses? Can the sounding properties of this ill-constructed roof thus pervert one word into the semblance of another? If not, the bounds set to the admissible from the taker-down of the spoken word, Ming-shu, do not in their most elastic moods extend to calumny and distortion. . . . The one before you has no weaknesses. . . . Doubtless before another moon has changed you will impute to him actual faults!”
“Humility directs my gaze,” replied Ming-shu, with downcast eyes, and he plainly recognized that his presumption had been too maintained. “Yet,” he added, with polished irony, “there is a well-timed adage that rises to the lips: ’Do not despair; even Yuen Yan once cast a missile at the Tablets!’”
“Truly,” agreed Shan Tien, with smooth concurrence, “the line is not unknown to me. Who, however, was the one in question and under what provocation did he so behave?”