Chapter 1 - Bearing Gifts by A.J. Hall
Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant?
Song of Solomon
Peng Mingjun turned, to see a man who appeared from his dress to be a high-ranking servant, perhaps a house steward, signalling to him across the market-place. He hastened towards him, concerned that he might be the representative of one of the manors whom his employer supplied in this district and that some problem had emerged with a recent consignment.
“Peng Minjun of Li Brothers,” he said, bowing. “How may I assist you?”
“Please, come with me to see my master.” He gestured towards a carriage drawn up in the corner of the square, and started striding towards it before Peng Mingjun could protest that out in the jianghu it was not precisely good business to follow a servant who neither identified himself nor those whom he served.
Having cast a glance around the town square in order to see whether there was any obvious evidence of a trap, Peng Mingjun trotted in his wake. He was relieved on arriving at the carriage to find the curtain drawn aside to reveal the fine-drawn, scholarly features of Sir Su, whom he had met a little over two years earlier.
He bowed deeply and Sir Su returned the greeting with equal sincerity.
“Forgive me for the abruptness. I spotted you by chance across the square, but from that distance could not be sure if it was you. What a fortunate coincidence we should encounter one another. There’s a problem I’ve been pondering for some little while and you are the very person to help me resolve it. Would you do me the honour of drinking tea with me later, if your business permits?”
Peng Mingjun was not the man to resist an appeal calculated so nicely to appeal to both his vanity and his curiosity. Since there were only two appointments left in his day book he pledged to meet Sir Su again in the second half of the hour of the monkey and amused himself during the interim (for the appointments were routine and required little more than token engagement of his mind) by speculating about the nature of the issue on which Sir Su wished to engage his help. By the time the hour arrived he had almost convinced himself (for a strong romantic streak lay beneath Peng Mingjun’s businesslike exterior) that one of the two young lords who had introduced him to Sir Su in the first place was laying siege to the affections of a young lady whose family opposed the match and Sir Su proposed to break down the resistance of the lady’s father by judiciously chosen betrothal gifts from the more exclusive end of the Li Brothers’ cellars.
At first Sir Su talked about anything and everything other than the issue on which he had expressed himself anxious to consult with Peng Mingjun. Given the adage (expressed in the most elevated poetic language in the Admonitions to those practising the higher mercantile arts which was Peng Minjun’s vade-mecum) that in all preliminary negotiations the salesman was the ox and the customer the driver, he allowed himself to be guided by Sir Su down whichever conversational avenues and byways suggested themselves.
Sir Su seemed particularly interested in hearing of Peng Mingjun’s friend Wu Chengfu, who had moved to Yunnan shortly after their last meeting. He enquired whether the change of climate had assisted his friend to recover his health. Here Peng Mingjun was able to report excellent news. Not only had Wu Chengfu’s lung complaint been much improved by the dry heat of Yunnan, his job as assistant manciple to Mu Manor suited his talents to a nicety. He had already, in consultation with the chief manciple, put in hand moderate but scientific improvements to the air flow in the cellars and identified and brought to an end a taro supplier scam, reducing the manor’s outgoings on that important vegetable by a measurable percentage. He hoped in due course to root out a number of other abuses which, to be fair, were only to be expected in a household of which the nominal head was a minor and his elder sister obliged to be absent so often on campaign as to severely disrupt her ability to ensure good practices within the family manor.
Moving from the personal to general, the conversation touched upon the intricacies of commissariat and logistics issues in the field; digression into current wars, insurrections and general instability in, respectively, Southern Chu, Donghai, Yequin and Northern Yan; consequent reflections on the likelihood of disruption to planting and harvest in those locations; gloom at foreseeable impact on prices for wine for the next season; consolation in prudent hedging measures taken by Li Brothers in anticipation of such a turn in the market, and at length back to the happy coincidence of their meeting again.
“When we last met, you mentioned a wine called ‘Fortunate Snake’,” Sir Su observed. “Your description intrigued me so much that some months ago, happening to see it on offer at an inn at which I was staying, I ventured to try a cup.”
He wrinkled his nose so expressively that Peng Mingjun laughed out loud.
“You could hardly say you weren’t warned.”
“Indeed not. Yet it reminded me of something. Once — very long ago — I spent not one but two entire evenings drinking a wine which, while it was in a somewhat similar style to Fortunate Snake, made that by comparison taste like Fifteen Dragons.”
Peng Mingjun’s mouth dropped open. “And you carried on drinking it all evening? Twice?”
“Ah.” Sir Su rubbed his sleeve between finger and thumb, as if he were nervous or embarrassed. “I am afraid this story does me no credit. I pray you to forgive my youthful arrogance, and give me merit for having learned better since.”
Peng Mingjun inclined his head. He could not imagine the ascetic and frail Sir Su having had a reckless youth, though the hi-jinks of young students were notorious. But he was thoroughly intrigued by now.
“Please go on.”
The thumb and forefinger rubbed a wider circle.
“Yes. Well. My father had a younger colleague — a family friend, as well as a colleague — who acted as mentor to me and to my own closest friend. He really was the kindest and best of men; more like an older brother than my father’s friend. Honest and direct to a fault. Unstinting with praise when it had been earned, but anything that looked like flattery physically pained him.”
He paused. “My friend and I, as I said, were very young. At just the age, in fact, where we egged each other on and didn’t know where to stop. And our mentor, as I said, was straightforward and not able to see when we were teasing him. My friend at that point, being a little older than I, had just been permitted to set up his own —”
Sir Su turned aside and coughed.
“His own courtyard. And he was naturally being besieged by tradespeople wanting to get his accounts.”
Having been part of such besieging forces in the past, knowing how stressful the mix of hope and despair could be for a salesman depending on commission to make that month’s rent, Peng Minjun thought Sir Su’s tone a little dismissive, but let it pass.
“My friend mentioned that a particular wine merchant (if he told me the name, I’ve forgotten it) had sent in samples of a wine so bad; no, so downright peculiar he was prepared to bet I’d never tasted anything like it my life.”
“What was it called?”
Sir Su smiled. “That I will never forget. Rosy-Throated Frog.”
Peng Mingjun’s interest sharpened. He had names, tasting notes and vintages down in his retentive memory for half a thousand wines of Da Liang and the countries round about. This one was utterly new to him.
“Well, it was everything my friend had promised, or for that matter threatened. But the truly odd thing — are you a musician, by any chance?”
Peng Mingjun shook his head. “I can hold a tune, if it comes to singing round the camp fire or at the end of a banquet. But nothing special.”
“As far as this analogy goes, that should be enough. You know when the caravans come in they bring musicians from many thousand li away, whose music was not written to our canons and often sounds discordant to our ears? Rosy-Throated Frog was a wine like that kind of music; it was not spoiled wine or cheap wine, but it was profoundly discordant. It had been produced well, but according to an unfamiliar canon. That, I’m afraid, was when I got my idea.”
It was not as if it was difficult to work out what the idea must have been, given the build-up. But no fewer than six of the Admonitions addressed the profound folly (and, worse, atrocious sales technique) of spoiling a punchline or interrupting an illustrative anecdote from a potential customer. Peng Mingjun’s face expressed only profound curiosity.
“We invited our mentor to dinner at my friend’s new courtyard. The idea, as I suppose you will already have guessed, was to ply him with Rosy-Throated Frog and make admiring noises about what a wonderful wine it was, what a discovery, until at last his nerve broke or his honesty overcame his discretion, and he said what he thought. Given, as mentioned, his excessively straightforward disposition, we reckoned no more than one or two cups of the stuff would do the trick. After which, of course, we would confess the prank, break out the — in those days it wouldn’t have been Fifteen Dragons, but whatever the fashionable wine was — and toast his health in it.”
“And?” Peng Minjun prompted.
“The first part all went as planned. It took a lot of effort, I can tell you, to drink those opening toasts in Rosy-Throated Frog with smiles on our faces but however much we praised it, our mentor praised it more. My friend and I dare not catch each other’s eyes. Eventually we became convinced that he’d spotted the joke and decided to turn it round on us. Which, of course, made it into a challenge, which the two of us took on in all the pride of our youth and — ah — idiocy.”
Sir Su looked rueful. “It would not be true to say I’ve never felt worse than I felt next morning when I woke. But certainly at the time I thought I was plumbing the uttermost depths of human suffering.”
Politely, Peng Mingjun concealed his grin behind a raised tea-cup.
“My father requested I join him for the noon meal. Given the previous evening, I expected to have some difficulties concealing my lack of appetite (or, more to the point, the reason for it) from him. But not only did he spot it at once, he laughed at me. He’d spent the morning with my mentor — who of course had been bright and fresh at dawn as if he’d spent the last week in a temple eating vegetarian food and cultivating his soul — and knew exactly what we’d been up to the night before. He even asked where my friend had bought the wine my mentor had praised so extravagantly— which, fortunately, I was honestly unable to answer.”
“Oh, dear,” Peng Mingjun said. Sir Su’s eyes met his.
“Oh dear, indeed. While I could just believe my father’s friend to have gone along with the joke to the two of us, it was inconceivable he would have involved my father in any form of deception.
“That was when the truth dawned. I had culpably allowed my preconceptions about the situation to override the evidence of my own eyes and my knowledge of the people involved. Yet the simple truth, that my father’s friend was perhaps the only man in the whole of Da Liang whose palate was completely attuned to Rosy-Throated Frog, and he’d enjoyed it exactly as much as he said he did, had completely escaped me. Instead, I’d adopted an explanation which required him to have been acting utterly outside his known character for an entire evening for a very insubstantial motive.”
Sir Su raised his head. “I may say, that lesson — which my mentor didn’t even know at the time he was teaching me — is one which has since saved me on more occasions than I can possibly count.”
“But your father?” Peng Mingjun prompted, fascinated.
“My father said, ‘There are few men one can trust whole-heartedly to follow one into Hell should the need arise. One who will volunteer to lead the vanguard — that man is a phoenix and should be cherished as such. I’m delighted you two seem to have realised that at last.’”
Sir Su fell silent. “And that, finally, was what made me ashamed. It was not simply that the prank in retrospect was pointless and somewhat unkind. It was the gulf between what we’d done and what the man in question deserved. As soon as my father had gone, I rushed out, found my friend and both of us went to my mentor and confessed all.”
“How did he take it?”
“He could not have been kinder. He said to us, ‘Yes, I could go to your fathers and report this, and they might make you kneel in your ancestors’ shrines for days, or have you flogged, or both. But what would be the point? Neither of them wish simply to see you suffer, and the point of kneeling or flogging is not the suffering but to make you recognise your error. And if you had not recognised it without kneeling or flogging, would you be here? So: no need, no need.’ And then he laughed and said, ‘Are there any flasks of the wine left? Let’s drink to a better understanding in future!’”
“And was there any left?” Peng Mingjun enquired, fascinated.
Sir Su’s face lit with a smile like lanterns at dusk. “Two whole cases. So that was the second night in succession I spent drinking Rosy-Throated Frog into the small hours.”
“So what became of your mentor afterwards?” Peng Mingjun enquired. To his credit the possibility that he might, at last, be on the brink of solving Li Brothers’ Fortunate Snake problem played only the smallest part in his thinking. Surely a man who had made such a profound impression on his friend at an early age must have gone on to do something quite remarkable.
At once the lanterns were snuffed.
“Shortly afterwards, my family suffered a very great reversal. It was no longer possible for me to pursue my original plans or remain in Jinling. I have not seen or heard from my father’s old friend for some years. I do not know, even, if he would wish to renew the acquaintance.”
A very great reversal. Whether financial or political, Peng Mingjun had no intention of prying.
Sir Su’s expression was remote, as though he was looking across an impassable distance.
“I do, though, miss him very much. And his advice and guidance would be of even more value to me at this period of my life than it was back then.”
He looked directly at Peng Mingjun. “I’ve been thinking for months how to approach him. When I tasted that cup of Fortunate Snake, it occurred to me that a gift of Rosy-Throated Frog would be the perfect method. It would mean nothing to anyone around him, but he must know it came from me. He could accept it and respond, or ignore it as he chose, but he’d know I sent it. The problem, of course, has been finding the wine. I’d hoped you’d know of it and who sells it. But it seems I may have to come up with a different stratagem.”
That brought Peng Mingjun’s professional pride into play.
“Oh, no, don’t give up yet. First, let’s note down what we do know. You said it was the same style as Fortunate Snake. What did you notice in particular about the similarities?”
Sir Su’s brow creased in thought. “Two things. Both are sweet wines. Secondly, they have a perfumed aroma, like temple incense. It’s a cloying combination.”
Peng Mingjun snapped his fingers.
“Matured in cedar barrels. That’s a technique of Yequin and Southern Yan. Those provinces spice their foods heavily, so they perfume some wines to complement them. And the sweetness draws the heat. But the incense flavour was more pronounced in Rosy-Throated Frog?”
“Revoltingly.” From the wry twist of his lips, Sir Su looked as if he were still tasting it.
“Green cedar, with the sap still in it.” Peng Mingjun nodded. “Southern Yan, then. Yequin always uses seasoned barrels. We’re getting on. Next, and most importantly, the price. Did your friend tell you what he paid for the wine?”
At this obvious question Sir Su looked so discombobulated that Peng Mingjun nearly fell apart in laughter.
“From the reference to setting up his own courtyard, I may take it your friend was from a rich family?”
After an awkward silence, he choked out, “One might say so” from which Peng Mingjun inferred the family of the man in question had been so much richer than Sir Su’s that the only way for the friendship to prosper at all was for questions of wealth never to be mentioned between them. That had probably caused its own problems once the trouble (whatever it was) came. Peng Mingjun filed a disapproving mental note; there seemed to be no question of using the friend as an intermediary nor, for that matter, did Sir Su talk about reuniting with him.
Aloud, he said, “It makes matters simpler. An established shipper then, at the high end. Do you recall the markings on the flask?”
At this, Sir Su reached inside his robes and produced a writing case. “I can try to draw them for you.”
After a few attempts which Sir Su considered critically and then discarded, he produced one with which he pronounced himself satisfied. He then scribbled down an address at the bottom of the page.
“If you do find any cases of Rosy-Throated Frog, leave word at this booksellers here, near Jinling’s northern gate. While I travel, I have someone checking my mail there every few days, in case there’s anything that needs to be sent on or any commissions that need to be carried out on my behalf in the capital.”
That resolved, Sir Su poured more tea.
Having once undertaken a task Peng Mingjun’s pride required him to see it through. His acquaintance in the obscurer reaches of the wine trade was vast and his memory retentive. Via a scholar whose eccentric hobby was collecting empty wine flasks and stamps he established who the shippers of Rosy-Throated Frog had been; via a search of the archives of the business registration bureau he discovered when their unhappy business had finally succumbed to the twin pressures of bad decision-making and undercapitalisation; via his own network he sought out all the auctioneers who specialised in distress sales of wine cellars, and struck lucky on the third attempt.
On being told that the object of the exercise was to track down a particular rare wine for a special customer (Peng Mingjun was artistically vague about the details, leaving the auctioneer to fill in the gaps as extravagantly as he might choose) the auctioneer opened his ledgers from the sale to Peng Mingjun’s scrutiny. His heart beat faster as he identified the relevant lot and its purchaser but admonished himself as to the folly of counting his prey captured until he had it safe in his hand.
He found his way to a warehouse in the docks area, and ascertained from the unprepossessing individual in charge that a number of cases of Rosy-Throated Frog were, indeed, taking up space somewhere within.
“I can’t promise anything,” Peng Mingjun said, “but give me a few days and I might be able to find you a buyer.”
He duly left word of his discovery at the booksellers. Before, however, he could discover if there had been any answer, Li Brothers ordered him off to cover the circuit of a former colleague whose iniquities with respect to expense accounts and inn-keepers’ daughters had (not before time, in Peng Mingjun’s opinion) finally caught up with him. He had little leisure over the next few months to do more than speculate occasionally whether Sir Su had indeed sent the wine to his father’s old friend, and, if so, how the overture had been received.
The chaos left by his predecessor took a great deal of sorting out and on his return to Jinling he found himself immersed in paperwork. About three days after his return he found himself summoned to the inner office to explain a discrepancy between the order he had booked and the wine the customer claimed to have received. His usual route from the room he shared with the other outside salesmen being blocked by renovations currently in train (Peng Mingjun noted with some satisfaction that a staircase down to the basement, which he had always considered a threat to life and limb, had apparently been marked for demolition) he went round the long way, through the customer entrance and outer office. He nodded a greeting to the head of sales, attending in person to the only customer, a stiff, elderly gentleman and entered the inner office to fight his corner.
Two incense sticks later he emerged victorious to find the customer gone and a furious discussion in progress in the outer office, the participants being the head of sales (a thin, nervous individual who made up for his lack of presence by alternatively yelling at and indulging his subordinates); the deputy head of sales (worn into a pale ghost by being sandwiched between the head of sales and the assistant-deputy); the assistant-deputy (a truly nasty bit of work whose ambition to become head of department Peng Mingjun had some years earlier sworn before his ancestors’ tablets he would frustrate or die in the attempt) and the three junior sales managers (likely lads all, whom Peng Minjun pitied from the bottom of his heart.)
“Ask Peng Mingjun, he’ll know if anyone does,” one of the junior sales managers suggested.
“Ask me what?”
The head of sales drew himself up with unconvincing dignity. “Whether you’ve ever heard of a wine called ‘Rosy-Throated Frog’.”
“As a matter of fact,” Peng Mingjun said, modestly conscious of cementing a reputation for omniscience he had spent several years cultivating, “I have.”
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a string of cash pass between two of the junior sales managers.
The assistant-deputy rolled his eyes.
“And might there be anything more you can tell us about this rare and precious beverage, other than that you have heard of it?”
Peng Mingjun bowed his head, and rattled out with military precision:
“Very strong, sweet wine. Comes from Southern Yan. Matured in green cedar. Sold by Qiu and Son of Jinling. Qiu and Son went into liquidation about five years ago. Not surprising, if the rest of their wines were like Rosy-Throated Frog. I’ve never tasted it myself, but someone I trust who did told me, ‘It makes Fortunate Snake taste like Fifteen Dragons.’ Why do you ask?”
The head of sales sighed. “Because the man who was in here when you arrived — you must have seen him?”
“I did. Who is he?” Peng Mingjun enquired
“The head steward for General Meng Zhi’s wife. Nice little account, hers; we’ve had it for years. And her father’s before. Not big volumes, but what she buys is top notch. Always paid on time, no quibbling. We could do with a lot more like her.”
Peng Mingjun, aware there was blistered skin between the head of sales and the assistant-deputy on the question of credit rashly extended to members of the Court rich in honours and scant of ready money, made haste to change the subject.
“General Meng? The head of the Imperial Guards?”
“Who else? It appears some well-wisher sent the General three dozen flasks of this —” The head of sales waved his hand dismissively. “‘Rosy-Throated Frog’ as a gift on his last birthday and the General couldn’t have been happier if the flasks had been made of solid gold and filled with nectar. Now it’s all been drunk and the General’s lady wishes to see if we can find any more of it as a surprise for their wedding anniversary which is coming up next month. But if it’s like you say, I doubt we’d be able to lay our hands on any and, if we could, would we want to send it out under a Li Brothers mark?”
Peng Mingjun shuddered. “Certainly not, sir.”
The assistant-deputy sneered. “What became of the first Admonition? Do not challenge a dragon on matters of fire, a qilin on matters of benevolence or a customer on matters of taste? If our customer has asked us to procure this wine, can we call ourselves merchants if we fail to do our utmost to find it for her, however disgusting its flavour?”
The deputy glanced between the head of sales and the assistant-deputy, as if deciding which bank of a river to scramble onto when caught in a fast-flowing current.
“Surely — that is — that is, I mean — if the General drinks it himself, whatever it tastes like, provided it’s to his taste, that’s all well and good, even if it does have our stamp on it, but then if he invites someone else to share it, that’s something completely otherwise. Isn’t it? I mean, wouldn’t it be?”
“Most illuminating,” the assistant-deputy observed. “Would that be an opinion for or against?”
Peng Mingjun cleared his throat. “Are we not, perhaps, allowing ourselves to become muddled? The most honourable assistant-deputy has spoken a profound truth: that the customer’s taste cannot be impugned. But in this case, we are, surely, at several removes from that person. The General’s wife assumes that the pleasure her husband took in the wine he received as a birthday gift was by virtue of its flavour. But does that really sound likely? Perhaps the identity of the giver or the memories the gift evoked were what lent value to the wine. And, that being so, might not the same wine coming from the General’s wife risk producing the very reverse effect?”
The head of sales’ eyes narrowed. “And what might you mean by that?”
Pink to the ear-tips, Peng Mingjun quoted the first line of the notorious ballad about a soldier who, after a long and arduous campaign on the northern borders during which he had starved and frozen for months on end, had staggered into a pleasure house in a remote provincial town and thereafter spent the rest of his life vainly trying to quench his thirst for the sweet wine he had supped there.
Enlightenment spread over the faces of all present.
The head of sales nodded. “Doubtless there’s something of that in it. Not that the likes of us will ever know. Polite regrets to the lady’s steward, then, and see if we can interest her in the new season’s Auspicious Leopard.”