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Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain Chapter 7.3 Death

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Chapter 7.3 Death

Presently, Peace broke in, "Now it is my turn to tell you all I know. As we have all already lost face in this brawl, I ... I see no point in holding back anything further. I ... I ..." At this, his throat constricted with emotion.

He was in a helpless confusion and words failed him. In no time, tears were streaming down his cheeks.

The Company could not bear to see the sight of a young adept fighter, of dignified manner and imposing bearing, reduced to tears in public. Thereupon, they looked hard at Curio, with wrath and admiration mingled in their eyes. Century growled at this point, "Why should you be so easily discouraged? There is no guarantee that the wife of a man of real worth will be always virtuous, or his sons filial. Thank heaven you are not yet married to this woman, otherwise the disgrace would desecrate the threshold of our Tao Family."

Peace used his sleeves to wipe away the tears. After composing himself, he continued, "On every previous visit to the Tian Family ... Uncle Pastoral's place ..."

Curio noted how Peace had hesitated for a while before switching to addressing Pastoral as "Uncle" instead of "Father". Curio felt joyous at

heart, thinking to himself, "This young fellow has become upset. He is not going to take Sister Sign as his wife, which is exactly what I hope for."

Presently, Peace continued his story: "Sister Sign invariably blushed and shunned me whenever the others were present, refusing to exchange any

words with me. But once we managed to find a corner to ourselves, and we would, after that, hold intimate talks inside that niche. I brought her small gifts on every previous visit and she always gave me a present or two in return, such as an embroidered purse, or made me a vest."

Peace's words left Curio feeling more peeved and sour than usual. He remarked to himself, "So that is what went on behind my back. She has been guarding it extremely well from me."

Peace continued with his account: "On the occasion in question, I went

with my father to attend Uncle Pastoral's Sword-sealing Ceremony. As soon as I saw Sign, she struck me as looking haggard, as if she had just recovered from a serious sickness. A spirit of compassion and concern surged in my breast. I soothed her with comforting words in private, inquiring whether

she had recently been taken ill. At first she answered haltingly, trying to hide the truth. When I probed further into the matter, she flared up in a temper, reprimanding me directly. And she has spurned me ever since.

"I was thrown into a helpless state by her shouting and screaming. A deep feeling of confusion and depression descended on me and I began brooding silently. The banquet being over, I met her by chance at the pavilion in the rear garden. Her eyes were red and swollen from crying. Thereupon, I seized the first opportunity to offer her my apologies, pleading with her, 'Sister, I am entirely to blame. Please do not be angry with me.' She was put in a terrible rage, and vented her spleen on me, 'If only it could be you! But because of those evil deeds wrought by me, I might as well be dead.' I was thrown into confusion and could not understand her words at

all. When I tried to pursue the matter further, she turned her head and strode off angrily.

"Presently, I retired to my own room and slept for a little while. The more I turned over the matter in my mind, the more uneasy I grew. I began to

wonder how I could have offended her. Then I got out of bed quietly and

stole along to her room. I made three light taps on the casement, the signal we used for a rendezvous. Despite my repeated gentle tapping on the

window, no sign of response came from inside the room.

"After a considerable time, I once again made another three light taps on the casement; still not a sound was heard. Gripped by curiosity, I gave the parchment grid a push. The window opened readily as it was not bolted. It was pitch dark inside and there was no sign of any soul whatsoever. I was desperate to talk to her, so I immediately jumped through the window into

..."

Curio, his heart already long riddled with jealousy, was on the verge of erupting. Failing to contain himself, he shouted out, "What were you up to, stealing into the room of a maiden in the middle of the night?"

Just as Peace was about to come forward with a defense, Lute, Orchid's personal maid, cut him short, "These two have been betrothed to each other. What right do you have to meddle in their affairs?"

Peace acknowledged Lute with a slight nod, thanking her for coming to his rescue. Then he continued, "I tiptoed to the edge of her bed and could faintly make out a pair of shoes sitting by its side. Thereupon, I plucked up enough courage and raised the gauze curtain of the bed, and then stretched out my hand groping under the cover "

Curio was purple with anger, ready to shout abuse at Peace, but was deterred by Lute's wrathful gaze, which forced him to swallow the words that were already at his lips. Peace was heard continuing his account: "...

my hand landed on a bundle of sorts, but Sister Sign was not in the bed. Gripped by curiosity, I groped further to see what was inside the bundle.

My hand felt cold. It seemed like a baby, which gave me a start. Thereupon, I fumbled more carefully inside. What else could it be if it was not a baby? The only thing was that the body was cold all over. It must have been dead for quite some time. It seemed as if the child had been suffocated by the heavy cover."

Suddenly, to the ears came a loud crashing sound. Orchid's hand slipped and her tea-bowl fell to the ground, shattering in pieces. Her face turned

ashen, and her lips were quivering.

Peace went on unaffected: "This incident may now strike you all as horrifying. It was the more frightening on that day when I touched the body with my hand in the dark. I was terribly frightened, and was on the verge of screaming. Just at that moment, I heard steps outside: someone was

approaching. I speedily hid under the bed. The person entering the room walked to the side of the bed and sat down on its edge, sobbing quietly. It was Sister Sign. She held the dead baby closely in her hands, lavished kisses on it, and then addressed it softly, 'My son, do not be harsh on your

mother for severing your young life with her own hand. The agonizing pain now gripping her is more heart-rending than that of the knife piercing her heart. Your mother would never be able to stay alive if you were also to breathe. Your mother is indeed cruel-hearted. She regrets her deed.'

"I could hardly believe the evidence of my ears. Her words sent cold

chills down my spine. It was clear to me that the child was the product of fornication committed by her and a dastardly coward, and she had effected the death of her own child. Presently, she hugged the dead child, sobbing and kissing it by turns. Finally, she stood up, threw a cape over her

shoulders and wrapped the child inside, and then left the room. I crawled out from under the bed only when she was far from the room. I stole behind her, with sorrow and wrath mingled in my breast. I resolved to find out who the dastardly coward was who had been her partner in fornication.

"She at once made for the rear garden, seizing a small spade from the wall. She left the garden by flitting over the wall. I followed her at a

considerable distance in an effort to follow her to the end of her journey. After about three hundred yards, she reached a burying-ground. Just as she was about to commence digging with the spade, a clashing sound of metal

upon rock came suddenly from some twenty yards away. Someone else was also digging in the middle of the night. This gave her a terrible fright. She

crouched down immediately. After a considerable time, she crawled slowly to spy on the trespasser there ahead of her, bending her body until it was

almost touching ground. I took it to be a tomb-robber. I also followed her over and silhouetted dimly against the light from a lantern by the side of a grave was a dark figure, digging feverishly.

"I strained my eyes to see more clearly. That somebody was not uncovering a grave, but was digging a pit beside a grave: he was also burying something. I began to wonder, 'This is very strange indeed. Could it be another person burying a bastard child?' The man dug for a while, picked up a long bundle, the size of a baby, and put it inside the pit. Then he

shovelled earth to fill up the pit. Afterwards, he turned around. I was able to make out that the figure looming in the light from the lantern was none other than our Brother Radiant."

Radiant had looked anaemic to start with. On hearing Peace's words, he grew even more ashen.

Peace went on with his story: "I detected something suspicious, thinking to myself, 'Is this brute Sister Sign's fornicator? Is he here also to inter a dead baby?' Sister Sign had crouched closer to the ground the minute he had come into sight. Contrary to what I expected, she did not go up to greet him. Brother Radiant presently trod on the soil, shovelled some turf atop,

and covered it with gravel. He then walked away from the site after making sure that the patch looked no different from its surroundings.

"After Brother Radiant had been gone for a considerable while, Sister Sign started digging feverishly. As soon as she had finished interring the dead baby she set to removing the gravel, which Brother Radiant had used a while before to cover the turf. She was intending to unearth the buried object to find out what he had buried. I thought to myself, 'I would have

exhumed it even if you had not. Now that you have yourself undertaken this task, I may as well sit back and relax.' Sister Sign was no more than a few moments at the job when suddenly from behind the grave sprang Brother

Radiant.

"'Sister Sign, what are you doing?' he demanded.

"Intending to leave nothing to chance, Radiant had merely pretended to walk away after burying his object, but in a trice he had retraced his steps to

spy on any suspicious figure. Sister Sign was given a shock. She relaxed her grip and the spade fell to the ground. She could say nothing.

"Thereupon, Brother Radiant addressed her coldly, 'Sister Sign, you know what I was burying, but I also know what you were burying. If secrets are to be kept, it will take both of us to see to it properly, otherwise both secrets will be out.' To this, Sister Sign agreed, 'Then we must swear a

solemn vow.' There and then Brother Radiant made a blood-curdling oath. Sister Sign swore a similar one. They vowed that, if they ever divulged the secrets, they should then be hacked to death, piece by piece. Afterwards, they both retraced their steps to the mansion.

"Their manner did not seem to suggest that there was some secret between them, although I was not entirely sure. But Brother Radiant did not strike me as having begotten Sister Sign's child. I followed them quietly. I had in my hands clandestine weapons treated with poison and was ready to poison him the second I sensed the slightest sign or word of intimacy between them.

"This was evidently his lucky day. The two kept a distance between them; not a word was exchanged as they walked the entire length from the graveyard back to the house. There were no signs to help me gauge their innermost feelings or intentions.

"Once Sister Sign was inside the room, she abandoned herself to inconsolable sobs. I stood by her window, my mind confused with wild and insane thoughts. I had an urge to storm in and deal her a fatal blow, or set the building on fire and raze the Tian family plot to the ground, or make public her shameful act. But at the same time I was also desperate to cry my heart out, holding her closely in my arms. Finally I came to a resolution: I had better pretend that nothing had happened, but wait until I discovered

who the fornicator was.

"Presently I retired to my room, feeling cold all over. Father was sound asleep in his bed while I was rooted to the ground, lost in a daze. Some

considerable time must have elapsed when suddenly Uncle Valour came striding into the room, informing me that Uncle Pastoral would like to

speak with me. I reflected, 'Now the time is here, I wonder what he has to say about this? Will he force me to break off the engagement? Or will he

exploit my ignorance to the full, making a cuckold of me?' As it was late in the night, Brother Valour excused himself, but urged me to go there on my own. Fearing that something untoward might occur, I woke up father asking him to be on guard. Then I set off armed, carrying edged and clandestine

weapons. I even had my bow and arrows concealed underneath my robe.

"On entering Uncle Pastoral's room, I found him stretched out supine on his bed, staring vacantly at the space above. He was holding a piece of white parchment in his hand. He hardly noticed my entry. I presently let out a cough, addressing him, 'Father.' He started and immediately tucked the

white paper under his bedding. Then he spoke, 'Oh, Peace, it is you.' I began to wonder, 'It is you who have sent for me, and yet you make all this pretence.' Nonetheless, the expression on his face convinced me that his fear was quite genuine. Immediately, he asked me to bolt the door but to leave the window open to forestall people from eavesdropping outside.

Then he said with his voice trembling, 'Peace, my life is hanging by the slenderest of threads, resting solely on your having the mercy to run an errand for me.'"

Curio, provoked by a rankling antipathy for quite some time, bounced up like the devil. Pointing his finger at Peace, he bawled out, "What rot! What stuff! What nonsense! My Master is a fighter of such remarkable martial pedigree. What good can come from a novice like you?"

Peace did not even bother to look at Curio, but ignored his presence completely. He then turned to Tree and the others, and said, "Uncle

Pastoral's words gave me quite a fright. I hastened to say, 'Your humble son- in-law will speed to do all the bidding of his father-in-law, even if it means losing his life.' Uncle Pastoral gave a slight nod. Then, he retrieved from under the quilt a slender parcel, wrapped in figured satin, and handed it to me, commanding, 'Take this parcel and proceed to the land beyond the Pass through the night, and then hide it away in a crevasse, beyond the reach of

everyone. If you execute all this quietly, you might still have a chance to save my life.'

"I took the bundle in my hand: it was hard and heavy. It seemed like a metal object. Thereupon, I asked, 'What is inside? Who is going to harm you?' Uncle Pastoral then gestured with his hand, looking thoroughly worn- out, and remarked, 'Hurry on your way now. Remember, you cannot allow even your father to know about this. Be quick, or it might be too late. And do not ever open the parcel.' I dared not ask any more questions, but spun round to take my leave. When I got to the door, Uncle Pastoral suddenly blurted out, 'Peace, what is hidden underneath your robe?' His words gave me a start. I told myself, 'He does have penetrating eyes!' Then I told him truthfully, 'They are edged weapons, bow and arrows. Many people were invited this evening, and your humble son-in-law is taking the necessary precaution lest some villainous characters should have found their way into the crowd.' Uncle Pastoral applauded, 'Bravo, you are both sharp and

capable. If only Curio could take after you a little. Hey, pass me your bow and arrows.'

"I fumbled inside my robe, retrieved my bow and arrows, and handed them to him. He at once drew out a long arrow, inspected it at close quarters for a few moments before fitting it to the bow, commanding, 'Be on your

way, quick!' I was somewhat flustered, warning myself, 'I hope he does not catch me in the back!' Thereupon, I pretended to pay obeisance to him by bowing my body in respect while taking slow backward steps towards the door. Only on reaching the entrance did I turn around. I looked back over my shoulder after arriving safely outside his room: he was aiming an arrow head at the window, apparently guarding against enemies entering through the window.

"I returned to my room, becoming suspicious about the whole affair. I turned over in my mind the enigmatic expression and fear written on Uncle Pastoral's face, knowing that no good would come to me of his plan.

Thereupon, I laid the whole business before father, only holding back the part about Sister Sign, lest he should get into a temper. Father offered me his advice, 'First, find out what is in there.' His words found an all-too- receptive ear. We immediately tore open the bundle and found this very

same metal casket inside.

"Father was present at the time when Uncle Pastoral wrenched this casket from Gully's bereaved heir. Later, they kept the heirloom of the Dragon Lodge, the poniard, inside the box. Father immediately remarked, 'This

seems strange.' He knew there were barbs hidden on the side of the casket, and he knew also how to go about opening it. Thereupon, he opened the lid following the set procedures. After looking inside the casket, father and I

stared blankly at each other. We were both speechless: it was empty inside. Father broke out, 'What does this mean?'

"I myself had already sensed that there was something amiss. Now I had it clear in my mind that Uncle Pastoral had tried to frame me with this vile scheme of his. He already had the poniard hidden elsewhere, but had passed me an empty casket. He would then send his men to waylay me. After

apprehending me, he would bring a false charge against me, of stealing the poniard. Uncle Pastoral might not have me killed when I failed to produce the weapon, but he would at least break off my engagement with Sister Sign so that she could marry Brother Curio. Father, for his part, had no idea of all this covert activity, and he therefore failed to see through this vile trick.

Finding it inconvenient to inform him, I remained silent. After father and I had spent a long time brooding on the problem, we still found it incomprehensible."

Curio instantly shouted, "You murdered my Master, made away with the heirloom of our Dragon Lodge and now you are here talking rubbish. Not even a three-year-old would be convinced by your gibberish."

Peace returned with a sneer, "Uncle Pastoral is now dead and therefore cannot support me, but I have proof in my hands."

Curio was further infuriated by his words, and was incited to thunder, "Proof? What proof? Show us your proof."

Peace calmly answered, "I shall show you the proof when the time is right. Now just be calm. Ladies and gentlemen, this Brother Curio never stops interrupting, so perhaps we should allow him to speak"

Tree joined in, addressing Curio coldly, "Curio, You misbegotten cur.

You wanted to hurl me down the mountain. This monk has a debt to settle with you, you dastardly coward! What is the use of averting your eyes now?" Curio was panic-stricken, not daring to utter a word.

Peace again spoke, "I was aware that the minute I went beyond the Tian Family property with the metal casket, though I might not run immediately into any mortal danger, I would at least have to forfeit the glory and honour befitting my station. I then consulted with my parent, 'Father, there is

something strange about the entire business. I shall return the parcel to my father-in-law and wash my hands of the whole affair.' Thereupon, I wrapped the metal casket up again with the figured satin, and composed a few words in my mind to expose Uncle Pastoral's vile trick quietly.

"I was outside Uncle Pastoral's room with the parcel in no time, but found all the lights had been extinguished in his room. The door and

windows were securely fastened. As the whole matter might fall through

any minute, tarrying was therefore out of the question. Immediately, I cried through the window, 'Father! Father!' No response came from the inside,

which set me wondering, 'He is so martially accomplished, he should be awakened even from a deep sleep. He is most probably feigning.'

"The more I turned over the matter in my mind, the more panic-stricken I became. I began to feel that the acolytes of the Dragon Lodge were already there, lying in ambush, ready to spring up and charge, forcing me to hand them the poniard. At length, I knocked on the door, blurting out, 'Father!

My father wants me to return the parcel to you. We have another urgent matter to address, and cannot help your esteemed self. Your humble son-in- law has not opened up the bundle.' I knocked on the door a few more times, but there was no response. It was deadly quiet inside. I grew desperate. I

whipped out my broadsword, prised the door open with it, and forced an entry into the room. Then I lit the candle. I was immobilized with fear.

Uncle Pastoral was lying stone dead on the bed, with an arrow piercing his heart; the same kind of arrow most often used by me. My bow was sitting on top of his quilt. His face was contorted with fear, as if he had set eyes on some formidable demons before breathing his last.

"I was stunned for a while, not knowing what to do. I found all the doors and windows securely fastened and could not understand how the culprit had made his entrance into the room, and also how he had later managed to leave. I raised my head to scan the ceiling and found all the tiles intact. The culprit could not have broken in from the rooftop either.

"While I was trying to solve the puzzle, the footsteps of several persons suddenly came from the gallery. As it was my arrow which had snatched Uncle Pastoral's life, I could never hope to escape if I were to collide with these people entering the room. Thereupon, I speedily snatched my bow from the quilt. Just as I was about to pull out the arrow from his heart, my

eyes caught two articles looming in the light, lying on his bed. I was given a terrible fright. My hand trembled, causing the candlestand to slip from my hand. The light went out instantaneously.

"You would not guess what had caught my eyes on the bed: the poniard was one of the two articles, while the other was the dead baby, interred a while before by Sister Sign. I momentarily believed that the baby begrudged having died unjustly, and had crawled out of the grave in order to take to life anew. I panicked and, without further thought, I snatched the

poniard and took to my heels. However, I retraced my steps on reaching the door as something suddenly dawned on me. I made my way back to Uncle Pastoral's bed and stretched my hand out to grope under the bedding. There it was: I had hold of the white paper. I surmised that the paper must be

connected in some way with his death. I at once tucked it inside my garment. Just as I was about to pull free the arrow lodged in his chest, I was aware of the steps fast approaching. In no time three men were at the door. I cried out silently 'The door is barred. Peace Tao is doomed!'

"In a flurry of desperate activity, I crawled under the bed after failing to discover any other hiding place. In no time, three men pushed open the door and entered the room. They were none other than Uncle Valour and the

Brothers Curio and Radiant.

"Uncle Valour cried out, 'Brother! Brother!'

"There was no answer. Thereupon, Uncle Valour ordered Brother Radiant to light a candle. On finding, once the light was brought in, Uncle Pastoral had died through injustice, they would certainly conduct a search. And that surely would be the end of me. I resolved to rush out of the room while it

was still shrouded in darkness.

"Uncle Valour and Brother Curio are both fighters par excellence: I could never beat them together. By taking them by surprise, I might perhaps be

able to damage their defense. I had to decide immediately what steps to take. Delaying further was inconceivable. Instantly, I crawled stealthily to the edge of the bed. Just as I was about to spring up, I was restrained

suddenly by an arm. I collided with a face. It turned out that somebody had already hidden himself under the bed.

"Before I could cry out in alarm, the stranger reached out his hand and locked me on the Pulse Gate on the wrist. I kept silent and heard him

whisper into my ears, 'Keep quiet. Let us escape together.' I felt relieved. But at that particular moment, a light came flashing over my eyes. Brother Radiant was seen re-entering the room, carrying a lantern.

"Thereupon, the stranger threw a clandestine weapon and with a pop out went the lantern. He then reversed his hand to wrench the poniard from my grip. With a turn, I speedily rolled out from under the bed and dashed from the room. The stranger came racing after me. Uncle Valour flung out his fist, crying, 'Ganef!' He was an accomplished fighter. The stranger stood little chance of getting away. I skulked back to my room feeling humiliated. I woke my father up. We both fled from the Tian premises immediately. We pursued our flight through the night.

"These are all the events of the incident. It was Uncle Pastoral who handed me the iron casket. He asked me to bury it in a place beyond the Pass and I discharged his wishes accordingly. When the Uncles-at-arms and Brothers-at-arms of the Dragon Lodge saw the arrow lodged in Uncle Pastoral's chest, they no doubt suspected me of being the culprit. I do not blame them for that. I wish I knew who the person was that was hiding under the bed, so that I could ask him to support me. Well, even if I cannot locate that person, I still do know who the real culprit was. You must all look at this paper, the very same note Uncle Pastoral tucked away under the bedding upon my entry into the room. He feared his enemy might do harm to him, and he therefore strung his bow and aimed the arrow at the window, awaiting the arrival of his enemy. His enemy did eventually appear, but

Uncle Pastoral failed to rid himself of his tormentor."

At this point, Peace took from inside his breast an exquisitely

embroidered pouch, which, needless to say, had been embroidered by Sign. The Company could not help turning round to steal a glance at Curio, who was furious, his eyes ready to dart fire. The remaining members of the

Company tried hard to swallow their smiles. Presently, Peace undid the sac and produced a white paper. He had intended to hand it to Tree, but he

wavered for a moment and instead he passed the parchment to Orchid.

Orchid, after receiving the white sheet which was folded diagonally several times, unfolded it. She let out a faint cry on reading two lines of characters written in dark, bold ink: "Congratulations to Pastoral, the

veteran fighter, on your retirement and sword-sealing; wishing you also the double blessing of prosperity and longevity. With respects from Fox Hu, the novice and the younger one awaiting yet your tutelage." These two lines of characters were executed with vigour, identical to the calligraphy on the visiting card delivered by the twin varlets a while before. It was, after all, the handwriting of Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain. Orchid held the

white paper with trembling hand, muttering to herself, "Could it be him?"

Valour then took the white parchment from Orchid. After studying it for a while, he confirmed, "This is indeed the handwriting of Fox. After all, we have incorrectly blamed Peace."

Valour suddenly wheeled round and said, looking at Hawk, "Sir Hawk, why were you hiding under my Brother Pastoral's bed? Were you there to spy for Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain?"

Valour's question gave everyone a start; neither Curio nor Radiant could make sense of it. On the night in question, the man hiding under the bed had immediately taken to his heels after having had a few bouts with Valour.

Thereafter, Valour, Curio and Radiant had tried to establish the identity of the stranger, but they were unsuccessful. Why did Valour suddenly point to Hawk and challenge this old enemy of his to a battle?

Hawk only let out a cold laugh, uttering not a word. Valour then

continued, "On the night in question, I did not have the opportunity to behold the face of the gentleman under the bed in the dark, and yet the martial ability of this Master commanded my profoundest respect. The three of us, Uncle and Nephews, failed to apprehend him, and have never been

able to establish his identity. We must therefore consider ourselves truly incompetent. As luck would have it, when I was given today the opportunity of battling man to man on the snowy ground with Sir Hawk, I found him to profess the same prowess and feats as the gentleman under the bed that day."

Radiant knew his Uncle Valour was waiting for some encouragement before he would be able to continue.

Thereupon, Radiant darted a question at him, "Uncle, Who was the gentleman under the bed?"

Valour's eyebrows immediately shot up and he blurted out loudly, "What a shame that Sir Hawk, such a dignified and imposing figure as an Imperial Guardsman, should have reduced himself to the wretched state of a petty burglar, sneaking into houses and performing insignificant tasks like a dog thief or a chicken thief!"

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