A Tall Ship Tale #76: Drawing A Blank

Paul DeAnguera continues the story.

Not long afterwards, Lao-tzu presented Captain Quid with his re-created “Book of Taoist Virtues.” Now the H.M.S. Legume was ready to repair the damage to history which Sir Hillary Throckmorton-Shillingsworth III had caused by burning the only copy of the book that was the foundation of Taoist philosophy.

“But how should we distribute it?” Peabody asked. The sailors scratched their heads as they pondered this question. But they got no ideas — only dandruff flakes for their trouble.

With a deferential clinking of chains Sir Hillary approached the quarter-deck dragging a 24-pound shot. “Why not just set up a Xerox machine and let the copies blow overboard as you fly down the river valley?” he suggested. Nobody trusted him now, but they couldn’t find anything wrong with his idea. So Sir Hillary was put to work loading paper into the copier, thus undoing his earlier evil deed. With the Xerox running, the flying frigate followed the Yangtze River to the sea, then followed the Yellow River back west to the mountains. The First Mate thought Sir Hillary might try to sabotage the operation. But the prisoner tended the copier diligently, and every sheet which the officer checked was perfectly legible. Now they had done all that they could to restore the roots of Taoism. Peabody kept the Brittanica by him; presently he was gratified to see its text change back from Chinese into English. In fact, there now seemed to be several more volumes to the encyclopedia than he recalled.

“Perhaps we should check some historical event to confirm that we’ve set things right,” he urged.

“Suppose we look in on the fall of the Hsin dynasty again?” the First Mate suggested. So they headed back down the river to Changan, time-shifting ahead to 23 AD on the way.

They disembarked and entered the capital. As they drew near a public square, a silk-robed herald and his attendants arrived. The First Mate nudged Science Officer Peabody and whispered “This is just like Chapter 66!”

“Shhh! You didn’t say that in Chapter 66, you ninny!”

The herald unrolled a huge purple scroll and stared fixedly at it. Then the Legumers realized what was different about this proclamation from the one which the herald had read aloud in Chapter 66. There was no gathering crowd; in fact the townspeople were completely ignoring him. Nor did the officers see any “Red Eyebrows” revolutionaries lurking in the nearby alley. The herald said nothing, for his scroll had no writing on it. After a moment he let it snap shut. The puzzled Legumers followed him back to the palace and asked for an audience with Emperor Wang Mang.

“That will be easy enough. He’s never busy, so you can see him immediately,” they were told. The emperor put down a little book he had been reading as they entered the throne room. After completing the formalities, Peabody asked him “Why did one of your heralds pretend to read an empty scroll in the public square this afternoon?”

“If a government has to exist, let it govern the least,” Wang Mang answered. “The best rulers are those who do not rule. The less effective a government is, the better!”

Peabody’s ears twitched spasmodically, and he exchanged startled glances with Quid. Meanwhile, the First Mate picked up the book which Wang Mang had been reading. Mutely he showed the title to the other officers:


“An excellent book,” Wang Mang commented. “Legend has it that 600 years ago its pages fluttered down from the heavens like snowflakes! It is not clear whether Lao-tzu was in heaven at the time. But, be that as it may — an excellent book!”

“I never would have dreamed that such a small, obscure old book could be so subversive,” the First Mate said, holding the little book with newfound respect.

“Which brings to mind a certain covert agent whom we’ve only recently begun to really know,” Peabody added. “And just now it seems to me that, if Sir Hillary had set out to strengthen the historical influence of Taoism rather than to eliminate it, he couldn’t have done a better job. I wonder which nation, in which historical period, he really works for?”

“Who knows?” Quid concluded. “But one thing is plain…

“…You can’t judge a book by its covert!”

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