“Not now,” replied the attendant; “for he has slept since these two hours. Would your graciousness have speech with the one of the inner chamber?”
“In season perchance. First lead me to your lord’s side and then see that we are undisturbed until I reappear. It may be expedient to invoke a powerful charm without delay.”
In another minute Weng stood alone in the sick man’s room, between them no more barrier than the silk-hung curtains of the couch. He slid down his right hand and drew a keen-edged knife; about his left he looped the even more fatal cord; then advancing with a noiseless step he pulled back the drapery and looked down. It was the moment for swift and silent action; nothing but hesitation and delay could imperil him, yet in that supreme moment he stepped back, released the curtain from his faltering grasp and, suffering the weapons to fall unheeded to the floor, covered his face with his hands, for lying before him he had seen the outstretched form, the hard contemptuous features, of his father.
Yet most solemnly alienated from him in every degree. By Wu Chi’s own acts every tie of kinship had been effaced between them: the bowl had been broken, the taper blown out, empty air had filled his place. Wu Chi acknowledged no memory of a son; he could claim no reverence as a father. . . . Tiao’s husband. . . . Then he was doubly childless. . . . The woman and her seed had withered, as he had prophesied.
On the one hand stood the Society, powerful enough to protect him in every extremity, yet holding failure as treason; most terrible and inexorable towards set disobedience. His body might find a painless escape from their earthly torments, but by his oaths his spirit lay in their keeping to be punished through all eternity.
That he was no longer Wu Chi’s son, that he had no father—this conviction had been strong enough to rule him in every contingency of life save this. By every law of men and deities the ties between them had been dissolved, and they stood as a man and man; yet the salt can never be quite washed out of sea-water.
For a time which ceased to be hours or minutes, but seemed as a fragment broken off eternity, he stood, motionless but most deeply racked. With an effort he stooped to take the cord, and paused again; twice he would have seized the dagger, but doubt again possessed him. From a distant point of the house came the chant of a monk singing a prayer and beating upon a wooden drum. The rays of the sun falling upon the gilded roof in the garden again caught his eyes; nothing else stirred.
“These in their turn have settled great issues lightly,” thought Weng bitterly. “Must I wait upon an omen?”
“. . . submitting oneself to purifying scars,” droned the voice far off; “propitiating if need be by even greater self-inflictions . . .”
“It suffices,” said Weng dispassionately, and picking up the knife he turned to leave the room.