“I am in your large and all-embracing grasp,” replied Kai Lung. “Proceed to spread your golden counsel.”
“The implacable Ming-shu has deliberated with himself, and deeming it unlikely that you should a third time allure the imagination of the Mandarin Shan Tien by your art, he has ordered that you are again to be the first led out to judgment. On this occasion, however, he has prepared a cloud of witnesses who will, once they are given a voice, quickly overwhelm you in a flood of calumny.”
“Even a silver trumpet may not prevail above a score of brazen horns,” confessed the story-teller doubtfully. “Would it not be well to engage an even larger company who will outlast the first?”
“The effete Ming-shu has hired all there are,” replied Hwa-mei, with a curbing glance. “Nevertheless, do not despair. At a convenient hour a trusty hand will let fall a skin of wine at their assembling place. Their testimony, should any arrive, will entail some conflict.”
“I bow before the practical many-sidedness of your mind, enchanting one,” murmured Kai Lung, in deep-felt admiration.
“To-morrow, being the first of the Month of Gathering-in, will be one of Shan Tien’s lucky days,” continued the maiden, her look acknowledging the fitness of the compliment, but at the same time indicating that the moment was not a suitable one to pursue the detail further. “After holding court the Mandarin will accordingly proceed to hazard his accustomed stake upon the chances of certain of the competitors in the approaching examinations. His mind will thus be alertly watchful for a guiding omen. The rest should lie within your persuasive tongue.”
“The story of Lao Ting—” began Kai Lung.
“Enough,” replied Hwa-mei, listening to a distant sound. “Already has this one strayed beyond her appointed limit. May your virtuous cause prevail!”
With this auspicious message the maiden fled, leaving Kai Lung more than ever resolved to conduct the enterprise in a manner worthy of her high regard.
On the following day, at the appointed hour, Kai Lung was again led before the Mandarin Shan Tien. To the alert yet downcast gaze of the former person it seemed as if the usually inscrutable expression of that high official was not wholly stern as it moved in his direction. Ming-shu, on the contrary, disclosed all his voracious teeth without restraint.
“Calling himself Kai Lung,” began the detestable accuser, in a voice even more repulsive than its wont, “and claiming—”
“The name has a somewhat familiar echo,” interrupted the Fountain of Justice, with a genial interest in what was going on, rare in one of his exalted rank. “Have we not seen the ill-conditioned thing before?”
“He has tasted of your unutterable clemency in the past,” replied Ming-shu, “this being by no means his first appearance thus. Claiming to be a story-teller—”
“What,” demanded the enlightened law-giver with leisurely precision, “is a story-teller, and how is he defined?”