Chen and the heroes returned to the boats and ate and drank to their hearts' content. They had handed out a crushing defeat to the Imperial Bodyguard, and were in good spirits.
"Brother Ma," Xu said to the society's Hangzhou Helmsman. "After such a setback, the Emperor certainly won't let matters rest. Advise all the brothers in Hangzhou to be very careful, especially those in the Manchu ranks."
Ma nodded, finished off his cup of wine and departed with his son.
Chen also drained his wine cup and sighed as he watched the broken reflection of the moon floating on the lake between the lotus lily leaves.
"What date is it today?" he asked Xu, looking up. "We have been so busy lately, I have completely lost track of time."
"It's the seventeenth. It was the mid-Autumn festival the day before yesterday. Don't you remember?"
Chen was silent for a moment, then said: "Brothers, please go and rest now, all of you. I will stay here for a while. Tomorrow, I have some private business to attend to, but the day after that we will begin preparations for rescuing Fourth Brother."
"Would you like anyone to accompany you?" Xu asked.
"No, there's no need. There is no danger. I just want to be by myself and think about things quietly."
The boats moved over to the shore, and the heroes bade farewell to Chen. Some of them were already half drunk, and they joined arms as they walked through the deserted streets of Hangzhou, singing loudly into the darkness.
Chen watched them go, then jumped into a small sampan and skulled the boat out over the mirror-smooth surface of the lake. The shore receded, and he stowed the oar and stared up at the moon. The next day was his mother's birthday. For ten years, he had been away from home, and now that he was back in southern China, his mother was already dead. He thought of her kindly, smiling face and of the common fate that awaits all men, and tears began to trickle down his face.
The first light of day began to spread across the sky. Chen plucked the red flower off his gown and placed it in his bag, then strolled towards the eastern gate to the city. The guard on duty stared at him, then saluted: he was a Red Flower Society man. Chen nodded to him.
"Since you are leaving the city, do you need a horse, Great Helmsman?" the guard asked.
"Yes, thank you," answred Chen. The guard went jubilantly off and came back a short time later with a horse. Following behind were two minor officials who both bowed respectfully before Chen. They felt fortunate to have had an opportunity to render a service to the Great Helmsman.
Chen mounted up and galloped off. The horse was fast and he reached the western gate of Haining city by noon. It had been ten years since he left his home town, but everything was still as it had been. Afraid of meeting someone who would recognise him, he turned his horse northwards and rode two or three miles further on. He stopped at a farmhouse and ate lunch, then lay down to sleep. Having been up the whole previous night, he slept very deeply.
Noting his gentleman's attire and the fact that he spoke the local dialect, the farmer and his wife treated Chen with great courtesy, and killed a chicken for dinner. Chen questioned them about events of the past few years and the farmer said: "The Emperor has ordered that the whole of Haining county be exempt from taxes for three years. It's all because of his respect for Minister Chen."
Chen thought about how many years it had been since his father had passed away, and wondered again why the Emperor had suddenly begun to bestow such handsome favours on his family. When he had finished dinner, he gave three taels of silver to the farmer in thanks and rode towards his family home in the northwest of the city.
As he reached the gate of the house, he stopped in surprise. In the old days, it had been named ' Secluded Garden ', but the old name board had been taken down and replaced with one which read ' Peaceful Pool Garden '. The characters were rounded and flowing, and he recognized the calligraphy as being that of the Emperor Qian Long himself. perplexed, he leapt over the wall into the compound. Next to the old house, new structures had been erected with endless pavilions and platforms, mansions and chambers.
He passed along a covered walkway towards the Jade Bracelet Hall, but again found a new name board over its door inscribed 'Beloved Days Hall', also written in Qian Long's hand. Chen frowned. The words 'Beloved Days' referred to the filial affection of children for their parents. What was the Emperor doing writing such a thing here?
He emerged from the hall and walked across a zig-zag bridge with red railings into a thick bamboo grove towards the 'Fragrant Bamboo Lodge', the former residence of his mother. This name board had also been changed, this time to read 'Spring Sunshine Hall'. Chen sat down on a rock, greatly confused. 'Spring Sunshine' was a poetic allusion used to describe a son's gratitude for his mother's love. It had no other meaning.
"Why has Qian Long placed this name board on my mother's house?" he wondered. "Even if he is more stupid than I think, he would not have been so thoughtless. Could it be he knew I would come back here and wrote out these name boards in an attempt to befriend me?"
He tiptoed up the steps, and looked through a window, into the main room of the lodge. It was arranged exactly as it had been when his mother was alive, with redwood furniture, a large carved bed, a clothes chest inlaid with gold, all as he remembered them from ten years before. A red candle flickered on the table. Suddenly, he heard the sound of footsteps from an adjoining room and an old woman entered. It was his mother's personal maid, Nanny Huan. The woman had reared him, and Chen felt closer to her than to any of the other servants.
He jumped into the room and hugged the old woman.
Greatly frightened, she opened her mouth to scream, but Chen covered it with his hand and whispered: "Don't shout, it's me." She stared at him, too shocked to speak. In fact, his appearance and manner had changed so much in the ten years since he had left that she did not know who he was.
"It's me, Jialuo. Don't you recognize me?" he asked.
"You…you are Jialuo? You've come back?" the woman asked, completely confused.
Chen smiled and nodded. She gradually recovered her senses and vaguely discerned the features of the mischievous child she had known. Suddenly, she threw her arms round him and began to sob loudly. Chen hastily restrained her.
"Stop crying! No-one must know that I've returned," he said.
"It doesn't matter," she replied. "They've all gone to the new section. There's no-one else here."
"What new section?"
"Of the mansion. It was built earlier this year. Heaven knows what it cost, or what it's for."
Chen knew she had little understanding of such matters. "How did my mother die? What illness?" he asked.
The woman pulled out a handkerchief and wiped her eyes. "Mistress was very unhappy, I don't know why. She hadn't had a good meal for days, and she become ill. It dragged on for more than a week before she passed away." She began to cry quietly again. "She kept calling for you. 'Where is Jialuo? Hasn't he come yet? I want to see Jialuo!' She was shouting like that for two days before she died."
Chen began to weep too. "Where is her grave?"
"Behind the new Sea Goddess temple," she replied.
"Sea Goddess temple?" Chen echoed.
"Yes, they built that in the spring too. It's huge, right on the sea embankment."
"I'm going to have a look. I'll be back in a while," he said.
"No…no, you can't!" She interrupted hastily, but he had already leapt out through the window.
He knew the path down to the embankment well and was there in a moment. Looking west, he saw a huge structure that had not been there before, and decided it must be the Sea Goddess temple. He ran towards the main entrance.
Suddenly, he heard the patter of light footsteps and hid behind a willow tree. Two men dressed in black clothes emerged from either side of the temple wall, saluted each other and continued on in opposite directions around the temple. Chen was mystified. Just then, two more men appeared dressed the same as the first pair and followed the same path round the temple wall. Even more curious, Chen waited for them to disappear around the corners, then jumped silently up onto the wall. Another pair passed him down below. He waited for a while and counted about forty men constantly circling the temple, all of them alert and silent, and obviously kung fu experts. Could this be a religious ceremony, he wondered? Full of curiosity, he jumped quietly down into the courtyard and crept into the main temple building to investigate.
Incense smoke curled up from in front of the central altar as candles flickered and danced. He wondered which god the altar was dedicated to, but when he looked up to see, he gasped out loud involuntarily. The handsome-faced statue was a likeness of his father.
He spotted an open door to the left and crept over. Looking out, he saw a long covered walk-way paved with white flag-stones. He knew that if he went along the white-stoned path he would easily be spotted, so he leapt onto the roof of the walkway and flitted silently down to its end. In front was another altar hall outside which was written in huge characters: 'The Palace of the Empress of Heaven.' The doors to the hall were open and he went inside. As he caught sight of the statue on the central altar, he started again, even more violently. It's face was that of his mother.
It was as if he was in a thick fog of bewilderment. He ran back outside, looking for his mother's grave and saw a long yellow tent behind the hall. He shrunk into a corner as a sturdy black-clothed man passed by on patrol.
The things he had seen that evening beggared the imagination, and despite the strict guard being kept, he resolved to get to the heart of the matter. He crept slowly over to the tent and crawled inside.
He lay absolutely still and listened carefully. There were no sounds outside, and he concluded that he had not been discovered. He looked round and saw the vast tent was completely deserted. The ground had been carefully flattened and the grass cleanly cut. The tent was joined to a string of others so that they formed a long tunnel stretching back from the temple buildings. Two large lanterns burned brightly in every tent, and looking down the tunnel, the two rows of lights stretching away looked like fiery dragons. He stood up and walked forward, as if in a dream.
Suddenly he heard the rustle of clothing in front and quickly hid to one side. After a moment, he continued forward again and spotted a man seated in front of two graves at the end of the tunnel. The graves were those of his mother and father. He was about to run forward and prostrate himself when the man stood up, gazed at the graves for a while, then knelt down and bowed several times. Chen saw the man's back shaking as if he was crying.
Faced with such a scene, all of Chen's suspicions disappeared. This man was either a relative or one of his father's former subordinates. He walked quietly over and tapped the man on his shoulder.
"Please get up," he said.
The man jumped in fright, but did not turn round.
"Who is it?" he shouted harshly.
"I have also come to pay my respects," Chen replied. He knelt before the graves and began to cry uncontrollably.
"Mother, father," he sobbed. "I have come too late. I will never see you again."
The man gasped and Chen turned to find it was none other than the Emperor, Qian Long.
"What…what are you doing here in the middle of the night?" Qian Long asked in surprise.
"Today is the anniversary of my mother's birth," Chen replied. "I have come to pay my respects to her. And you?"
Qian Long ignored the question. "You…you are the son of Chen Shiguan?" he exclaimed incredulously.
"Yes. Didn't you know?"
Qian Long shook his head.
In the past few years, Qian Long had been bestowing extraordinary favours on the Chen family of Haining, and although some of his ministers were aware that the new leader of the Red Flower Society was a son of Minister Chen, none dared to mention it because of the Emperor's unpredictable temper.
Chen wondered why on earth the Emperor would come secretly to kneel and cry before the grave of a former minister. It was completely inexplicable.
Qian Long took Chen's hand. "You must think it strange, seeing me here paying my respects in the middle of the night," he said. "Your father and I had great affection for each other, so I took advantage of this visit to the south to offer my thanks to him."
Chen made a sound, half believing, half not.
"If word of this should get out, it would be extremely inconvenient," Qian Long continued. "Can you give me your word that you will not reveal it to anyone?"
Chen was deeply moved by Qian Long's reverence for his own mother and father. "Don't worry," he replied. "I will not mention this evening to anyone."
Qian Long immediately breathed easier. The two men shook hands, one the Emperor of China, the other the leader of the country's largest secret society. They were silent for a while, each with his own thoughts. Far off, they heard a low roar like thunder.
"The tide is coming in," said Chen. "Let us go to the embankment and watch. It has been ten years since I saw it."
"All right," replied Qian Long, still holding Chen's hand. They walked out of the tent.
The guards outside the tent spotted the two as they emerged and rushed forward to wait on the Emperor, wondering how his companion could have entered the tent without them being aware of it. Then Bodyguard Bai Zhen and the other officers noticed that it was the Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society, and they shook with fear. One of the guards led the Emperor's horse across to him.
"Take my horse," Qian Long said to Chen. The guards hurriedly lead over another horse and the two rode out of the temple gate.
The roar of the ocean filled their ears and they gazed out at the pale moonlight reflecting off it in silvery shades.
Qian Long stared at the waves for a long time, then said: "Fate seems determined to throw us together. Tomorrow, I will return to Hangzhou, and after three more days there, will continue back to Beijing. Why don't you come with me? It would be best if you were always by my side. Seeing you is like seeing your father."
Chen was surprised by the warmth of his words.
"You excel in both scholarship and the martial arts," Qian Long continued. "It would be easy to promote you to your father's former post, which would be ten thousand times better than hiding yourself away in the underworld."
"I am extremely grateful to you for your goodwill," Chen said. "But if I coveted great wealth, I would not have left home in the first place."
"Why did you leave? Why did you insist on mixing in the underworld instead of doing what a nobleman should? Was it that you couldn't get on with your father and brother?"
"No, it wasn't that. It was the wish of my mother. My father and elder brother knew nothing of it. They have spent a lot of time and effort looking for me."
"Your mother told you to leave home? That is truly strange. Why did she do that?"
Chen hung his head. "It was the result of a tragedy she suffered. I am not too clear about it either."
"The Chen family has been distinguished for many generations. During the last three hundred years alone, more than two hundred members of the family have passed the Imperial examinations, three have served as prime ministers and eleven as other senior officials. The number is extraordinary. Your father was an honest and hard-working man. He often used to plead before my father on behalf of the common people, crying as he did so. My father used to laugh and say: 'Chen Shiguan was sobbing again today. I suppose I'll have to agree to what he says.'"
Hearing of his father's conduct as an official, Chen was at once saddened and pleased. "He cried before the Emperor and I steal military grain," he thought. "Our methods are different but our aim is the same."
They stood and watched the tide thunder in.
"I would like to give you a piece of advice," Qian Long said.
"The actions of the Red Flower Society have come very close to rebellion. Past behaviour I can ignore, but you must not disregard the law in such a way again."
"All we do is for the country and the common people," Chen replied.
Qian Long sighed. "What a pity," he said. After a moment, he added: "As a result of our meeting tonight, I promise that when we destroy the Red Flower Society, you will be spared."
"In that case, if you should fall into the hands of the Red Flower Society, we will not harm you either."
Qian Long laughed. "You refuse to give an inch, even before the Emperor. All right, it's been said now. Let us join fists and swear that from today onwards neither shall harm the other."
The two men stretched out their arms and touched fists three times.
"With such a strong tide, if the sea embankment is not renovated, the homes and graves of the common people will sooner or later be inundated," Qian Long said. "I must see that my officials arrange for it to be reconstructed."
"That is the act of a ruler who loves his subjects," Chen replied. "The common people will be very grateful."
Qian Long nodded. "Your father performed great services for the Empire. I could not bear to see his grave swallowed by the sea."
He took Chen's hand and started to walk along the embankment with him. The guards wanted to follow, but he waved them back.
"I gather from your expression that you are still unhappy," he said as they strolled along. "Apart from thoughts of your parents, what other problem do you have? You may be unwilling to become an official, but if you have any requests, I will do my best to comply with them."
Chen was silent for a moment. "There is one thing…but I doubt if you would agree."
"Any request you make will be granted."
"I never joke."
"Then I ask you to release my sworn brother, Wen Tailai."
Qian Long started in surprise. He had not guessed that this would be the request. For a moment, he was at a loss.
"How has Master Wen offended you?" Chen asked.
"I cannot release him, but since I have promised, I cannot go back on my word. I tell you what: I won't kill him."
"Then we have no choice but to rescue him by force," replied Chen. "I asked you to release him not because we are unable to rescue him, but simply to avoid injuring our friendship."
Qian Long had witnessed the might of the Red Flower Society, and he knew this was no empty boast.
"I appreciate your good intentions," he said. "But I tell you honestly, I cannot allow this man out of my grasp. If you insist on trying to rescue him, then I will kill him three days from now."
Chen's blood boiled. "If you kill Master Wen, you will never eat or sleep easy again," he threatened.
"And if I don't kill him, I will never eat or sleep easy either."
"If that is true, then even being Emperor cannot compare with the carefree life that I lead."
"How old are you?" Qian Long asked.
"I am not jealous of your carefree life, but I am jealous of your youth. But it is of no consequence. No matter what one's achievements, everyone still returns to dust when their time is up."
The two strolled on for a time.
"How many wives do you have?" Qian Long asked. Without waiting for an answer, he plucked a piece of jade off his gown and offered it to Chen, saying: "This is a priceless treasure. Give it to your wife."
Chen did not take it. "I have not married yet," he said.
Qian Long laughed. "You always set your sights too high. Give it to the lady of your heart as a wedding present, then."
Chen accepted the stone. The jade shone with a pale glow under the moonlight and he found it slightly warm to the touch. He realized it was a piece of incalculably valuable "warm jade". He placed the jade in his pocket. "Thank you for the present," he said. "We will meet again." He saluted with his fists, mounted his horse and started off.
Qian Long waved goodbye to him. "Look after yourself!" he shouted.