Dong Zhuo was on the point of slaying Yuan Shao, but Li Ru checked him, saying, “You must not kill rashly while the business hangs in the balance.”
Yuan Shao, his sword still unsheathed, left the assembly. He hung up the seals of his office at the east gate and went to Jizhou Region.
Dong Zhuo said to Imperial Guardian Yuan Wei, “Your nephew behaved improperly, but I pardon him for your sake. What think you of my scheme?”
“What you think is right,” was the reply.
“If anyone opposes the great scheme, he will be dealt with by military law!” said Dong Zhuo.
The ministers, thoroughly dreaded, promised obedience, and the feast came to an end.
Dong Zhuo asked Counselor Zhou Bi and Commander Wu Qiong what they thought of the flight of Yuan Shao.
Zhou Bi said, “He left in a state of great anger. In such a state of excitement much harm may ensue to the present state of affairs, especially as the Yuan family have been noted for their high offices for four generations, and their proteges and dependants are everywhere. If they assemble bold people and call up their clients, all the valiant warriors will be in arms, and the whole Shandong Mountains will be lost. You had better pardon Yuan Shao and give him a post. He will be glad at being forgiven and will do no harm.”
Wu Qiong said, “Yuan Shao is fond of scheming, but he fails in decision and so is not to be feared. But it would be well to give him rank and thus win popular favour.”
Dong Zhuo followed this advice, and within that day sent a messenger to offer Yuan Shao the governorship of Bohai.
On the first day of the ninth month, the Emperor was invited to proceed to the Hall of Virtue where was a great assembly of officials.
There Dong Zhuo, sword in hand, faced the gathering and said, “The Emperor is a weakling unequal to the burden of ruling this land. Now listen ye to the document I have prepared!”
And Li Ru read as follows:
“The dutiful Emperor Ling too soon left his people. The emperor is the cynosure of all the people of this land. Upon the present Emperor Bian, Heaven has conferred but small gifts: In dignity and deportment he is deficient, and in mourning he is remiss. Only the most complete virtue can grace imperial dignity. Empress He has trained him improperly, and the whole state administration has fallen into confusion. Empress Dong died suddenly and no one knew why. The doctrine of the three bonds—Heaven, Earth, and Human—and the continuity of Heaven and Earth interdependence have both been injured.
“But Liu Xian, Prince of Chenliu, is sage and virtuous beside being of handsome exterior. He conforms to all the rules of propriety: His mourning is sincere, and his speech is always correct. Eulogies of him fill the empire. He is well fitted for the great duty of consolidating the rule of Han.
“Now therefore the Emperor is deposed and created Prince of Hongnong, and Empress He retires from the administration.
“I pray the Prince of Chenliu to accept the throne in conformity with the decrees of Heaven and Earth, the desires of people, and the fulfilment of the hopes of humankind.”
This having been read, Dong Zhuo bade the officials lead the Emperor down from the throne, remove his seal, and cause him to kneel facing the north, styling himself faithful servant of the Throne and requesting commands. Moreover Dong Zhuo bade Empress He strip off her royal dress of ceremony and await the imperial command. Both victims of this oppression wept bitterly, and every minister present was deeply affected.
One minister put his discontent into words, crying, “The false Dong Zhuo is the author of this insult, which I will risk my life to wipe away!”
And with this he rushed at Dong Zhuo threatening with his ivory baton of office.
It was Chair of the Secretariat Ding Guan. Dong Zhuo had Ding Guan removed and summarily put to death. Before his death, Ding Guan ceased not to rail at the oppressor, nor was he frightened at death.
The rebel Dong Zhuo conceived the foul design
To thrust the King aside and wrong his line.
With folded arms the courtiers stood, save one
Ding Guan, who dared to cry that wrong was done.
Then the emperor designate, Prince of Chenliu, went to the upper part of the hall to receive congratulations. After this the former Emperor—now Prince of Hongnong—, his mother, and the Imperial Consort, Lady Tang, were removed to the Palace of Forever Calm. The entrance gates were locked against all comers.
It was pitiful! There was the young emperor, after reigning less than half a year, deposed and another put in his place. The new Emperor was Liu Xian, the second son of the late Emperor Ling. He was nine years of age, five years younger than his deposed brother. The new reign-style was called the Inauguration of Tranquillity.
Becoming the Prime Minister, Dong Zhuo was most powerful and arrogant. When he bowed before the throne, he did not declare his name. In going to court he did not hasten. Booted and armed he entered the reception halls. He amassed a wealth exceeding any other’s.
His adviser, Li Ru, impressed upon Dong Zhuo constantly to employ people of reputation so that he should gain public esteem. Therefore, Dong Zhuo restored many offices of those who had been victims of the eunuchs. For those who had died, he gave ranks and positions to their progeny. When they told him Cai Yong was a man of talent, Dong Zhuo summoned him. But Cai Yong would not go. Dong Zhuo sent a message to him that if he did not come, he and his whole clan should be exterminated. Then Cai Yong gave in and appeared. Dong Zhuo was very gracious to him and promoted him thrice in a month. Cai Yong became Court Counsellor. Such was the generosity of the Prime Minister.
Meanwhile the deposed ruler, his mother, and his consort were immured in the Palace of Forever Calm and found their daily supplies gradually diminishing. The deposed Emperor wept incessantly. One day a pair of swallows gliding to and fro moved him to verse:
“Spring and the green of the tender grass,
Flushes with joy as the swallows pass;
The wayfarers pause by the rippling stream,
And their eyes will new born gladness gleam;
With lingering gaze the roofs I see
Of the Palace that one time sheltered me.
But those whom I sheltered in all righteousness,
Let’s not stay in silence when the days pass useless?”
The messenger, sent by Dong Zhuo from time to time to the palace for news of the prisoners, got hold of this poem and showed it to his master.
“So he shows his resentment by writing poems, eh! A fair excuse to put them all out of the way,” said Dong Zhuo.
Li Ru was sent with ten men into the palace to consummate the deed. The three were in one of the upper rooms when Li Ru arrived. The Emperor shuddered when the maid announced the visitor’s name.
Presently Li Ru entered and offered a cup of poisoned wine to the Emperor. The Emperor asked what this meant.
“Spring is the season of blending and harmonious interchange, and the Prime Minister sends a wine cup of longevity,” said Li Ru.
“If it be the wine of longevity, you may share it too,” said Empress He.
Then Li Ru became brutally frank.
“You will not drink?” asked he.
He called the men with daggers and cords and bade the Emperor look at them.
“The cup, or these?” said he.
Then said Lady Tang, “Let the handmaid drink in place of her lord. Spare the mother and her son, I pray!”
“And who may you be to die for a prince?” said Li Ru.
Then he presented the cup to the Empress once more and bade her drink.
She blamed her brother, the feckless He Jin, the author of all this trouble. She would not drink.
Next Li Ru approached the Emperor.
“Let me say farewell to my mother,” begged he, and he did so in these lines:
“The heaven and earth are changed,
Alas! the sun and the moon leave their courses,
I, once the center of all eyes, am driven to the farthest confines,
Oppressed by an arrogant minister my life nears its end,
Everything fails me and vain are my falling tears.”
Lady Tang sang:
“Heaven is to be rent asunder, Earth to fall away,
I, handmaid of an emperor, would grieve if I followed him not.
We have come to the parting of ways, the quick and the dead walk not together;
Alas! I am left alone with the grief in my heart.”
When they had sung these lines, they fell weeping into each others’ arms.
“The Prime Minister is awaiting my report,” said Li Ru, “and you delay too long. Think you that there is any hope of succor?”
The Empress broke into another fit, “The rebel forces us to death, mother and son, and Heaven has abandoned us. But you, the tool of his crime, will assuredly perish!”
Thereupon Li Ru grew more angry, laid hands on the Empress and threw her out of the window. Then he bade the soldiers strangle Lady Tang and forced the lad to swallow the wine of death.
Li Ru reported the achievement to his master who bade them bury the victims without the city. After this Dong Zhuo’s behavior was more atrocious than before. He spent his nights in the Palace, defiled the imperial concubines there, and even slept on the Dragon Couch.
Once he led his soldiers out of the city to Yangcheng when the villagers, men and women, were assembled from all sides for the annual spring festival. His troops surrounded the place and plundered it. They took away booty by the cart loads, and women prisoners and more than one thousand severed heads. The procession returned to Capital Luoyang and published a story that they had obtained a great victory over some rebels. They burned the heads beneath the walls, and the women and jewelry were shared out among the soldiers.
A general named Wu Fu was disgusted at this ferocity and sought a chance to slay Dong Zhuo. Wu Fu constantly wore a breastplate underneath his court dress and carried in conceal a sharp dagger. One day when Dong Zhuo came to court, Wu Fu met him on the steps and tried to stab him. But Dong Zhuo was a very powerful man and held Wu Fu off till Lu Bu came to his help. Lu Bu struck down the assailant.
“Who told you to rebel?” said Dong Zhuo.
Wu Fu glared at him and cried, “You are not my prince, I am not your minister: Where is the rebellion? Your crimes fill the heavens, and every person would slay you. I am sorry I cannot tear you asunder with chariots to appease the wrath of the world!”
Dong Zhuo bade the guards take him out and hack him to pieces. Wu Fu only ceased railing as he ceased to live.
That loyal servant of the latter days of Han.
His valour was high as the heavens, in all ages unequalled;
In the court itself would he slay the rebel, great is his fame!
Throughout all time will people call him a hero.
Thereafter Dong Zhuo always went well guarded.
At Bohai, Yuan Shao heard of Dong Zhuo’s misuse of power and sent a secret letter to Minister of the Interior Wang Yun:
“That rebel Dong Zhuo outrages Heaven and has deposed his ruler. Common people dare not speak of him: That is understandable. Yet you suffer his aggression as if you knew nought of them. How then are you a dutiful and loyal minister? I have assembled an army and desire to sweep clean the royal habitation, but I dare not lightly begin the task. If you are willing, then find an opportunity to plot against this man. If you would use force, I am at your command.”
The letter arrived but Wang Yun could see no chance to plot against Dong Zhuo.
One day while among the throng in attendance, mostly people of long service, Wang Yun said to his colleagues, “This is my birthday, I pray you come to a little party in my humble cot this evening.”
“We certainly will,” they cried, “and wish you long life.”
That night the tables were spread in an inner room, and his friends gathered there. When the wine had made a few rounds, the host suddenly covered his face and began to weep.
The guests were aghast.
“Sir, on your birthday too, why do you weep?” said they.
“It is not my birthday,” replied Wang Yun. “But I wished to call you together, and I feared lest Dong Zhuo should suspect, so I made that the excuse. This man insults the Emperor and does as he wishes so that the imperial prerogatives are in imminent peril. I think of the days when our illustrious founder destroyed the Qin, annihilated Chu, and obtained the empire. Who could have foreseen this day when that Dong Zhuo has subjugated all to his will? That is why I weep.”
Then they all wept with him.
Seated among the guests, however, was Cao Cao, who did not join in the weeping but clapped his hands and laughed aloud.
“If all the officers of the government weep till dawn, and from dawn weep till dark, will that slay Dong Zhuo?” said Cao Cao.
Wang Yun turned on him angrily.
“You were raised by an eunuch. Do you feel no gratitude? You can laugh?
“I laughed at the absurdity of an assembly like this being unable to compass the death of one man. Foolish and incapable as I am, I will cut off his head and hang it at the gate as an offering to the people.”
Wang Yun left his seat and went over to Cao Cao.
“These later days,” Cao Cao continued, “I have bowed my head to Dong Zhuo with the sole desire of finding a chance to destroy him. Now he begins to trust me, and so I can approach him sometimes. You have a sword with seven precious jewels which I would borrow, and I will go into his palace and kill him. I care not if I die for it.”
“What good fortune for the world that this is so!” said Wang Yun.
With this Wang Yun himself poured out a goblet for Cao Cao who drained it and swore an oath. After this the treasured sword was brought out and given to Cao Cao who hid it under his dress. He finished his wine, took leave of the guests, and left the hall. Before long the others dispersed.
The next day Cao Cao, with this short sword girded on, came to the palace of the Prime Minister.
“Where is the Prime Minister?” asked he.
“In the small guest room,” replied the attendants.
So Cao Cao went in and found his host seated on a couch. Lu Bu was at his side.
“Why so late, Cao Cao?” said Dong Zhuo.
“My horse is out of condition and slow,” replied Cao Cao.
Dong Zhuo turned to his henchman Lu Bu.
“Some good horses have come in from the west. You go and pick out a good one as a present for him.”
And Lu Bu left.
“This traitor is doomed!” thought Cao Cao. He ought to have struck then, but Cao Cao knew Dong Zhuo was very powerful, and he was afraid to act. He wanted to make sure of his blow.
Now Dong Zhuo’s corpulence was such that he could not remain long sitting, so he rolled over couch and lay face inwards.
“Now is the time,” thought the assassin, and he gripped the good sword firmly.
But just as Cao Cao was going to strike, Dong Zhuo happened to look up and in a mirror he saw the reflection of Cao Cao behind him with a sword in the hand.
“What are you doing, Cao Cao?” said Dong Zhuo turning suddenly. And at that moment Lu Bu came along leading a horse.
Cao Cao in a flurry dropped on his knees and said, “I have a precious sword here which I wish to present to Your Benevolence.”
Dong Zhuo took it. It was a fine blade, over a foot in length, inlaid with the seven precious signs and very keen—a fine sword in very truth. Dong Zhuo handed the weapon to Lu Bu while Cao Cao took off the sheath which he also gave to Lu Bu.
Then they went out to look at the horse. Cao Cao was profuse in his thanks and said he would like to try the horse. So Dong Zhuo bade the guards bring saddle and bridle. Cao Cao led the creature outside, leapt into the saddle, laid on his whip vigorously, and galloped away eastward.
Lu Bu said, “Just as I was coming up, it seemed to me as if that fellow was going to stab you, only a sudden panic seized him and he presented the weapon instead.”
“I suspected him too!” said Dong Zhuo.
Just then Li Ru came in and they told him.
“Cao Cao has no family here in the capital but lodges quite alone and not far away,” said Li Ru. “Send for him. If he comes forthwith, the sword was meant as a gift. But if he makes any excuses, he had bad intentions. And you can arrest him.”
They sent four prison warders to call Cao Cao.
They were absent a long time and then came back, saying, “Cao Cao had not returned to his lodging but rode in hot haste out of the eastern gate. To the gate commander’s questions he replied that he was on a special message for the Prime Minister. He went off at full speed.”
“His conscience pricked him and so he fled. There is no doubt that he meant assassination!” said Li Ru.
“And I trusted him so well!” said Dong Zhuo in a rage.
“There must be a conspiracy afoot. When we catch him, we shall know all about it,” said Li Ru.
Letters and pictures of the fugitive Cao Cao were sent everywhere with orders to catch him. A large reward in money was offered and a patent of nobility, while those who sheltered him would be held to share his guilt.
Cao Cao traveled in hot haste toward Qiao, his home county. On the road at Zhongmou, he was recognized by the guards at the gate and made prisoner. They took him to the Magistrate. Cao Cao declared he was a merchant, named Huang Fu. The Magistrate scanned his face most closely and remained in deep thought.
Presently the Magistrate said, “When I was at the capital seeking a post, I knew you as Cao Cao. Why do you try to conceal your identity?”
The Magistrate ordered Cao Cao to the prison till the morrow when he could send Cao Cao to the capital and claim the reward. He gave the soldiers wine and food as a reward.
About midnight the Magistrate sent a trusty servant to bring the prisoner into his private rooms for interrogation.
“They say the Prime Minister treated you well. Why did you try to harm him?” said Magistrate.
“How can swallows and sparrows understand the flight of the crane and the wild goose? I am your prisoner and to be sent to the capital for a reward. Why so many questions?”
The Magistrate sent away the attendants and turning to the prisoner said, “Do not despise me. I am no mere hireling; only I have not yet found the lord to serve.”
Said Cao Cao, “My ancestors enjoyed the bounty of Han, and should I differ from a bird or a beast if I did not desire to repay them with gratitude? I have bowed the knee to Dong Zhuo that thereby I might find an opportunity against him, and so remove this evil from the state. I have failed for this time. Such is the will of Heaven.”
“And where are you going?”
“Home to my county. Thence I shall issue a summons calling all the bold people to come with forces to kill the tyrant. This is my desire.”
Thereupon the Magistrate himself loosened the bonds of the prisoner, led him to the upper seat, and bowed, saying, “I am called Chen Gong. My aged mother and family are in the east county of Dongjun. I am deeply affected by your loyalty and uprightness, and I will abandon my office and follow you!”
Cao Cao was delighted with this turn of affairs. Chen Gong at once collected some money for the expenses of their journey and gave Cao Cao a different dress. Then each took a sword and rode away toward Qiao.
Three days later at eventide they reached Chenggao. Cao Cao pointed with his whip to a hamlet deep in the woods and said, “There lives my uncle, Lu Boshe, a sworn-brother of my father. Suppose we go and ask news of my family and seek shelter for the night?”
“Excellent!” said his companion Chen Gong, and they rode over, dismounted at the farm gate and entered.
Lu Boshe greeted them and said to Cao Cao, “I hear the government has sent stringent orders on all sides to arrest you. Your father has gone into hiding to Chenliu. How has this all come about?”
Cao Cao told him and said, “Had it not been for this man here with me, I should have been already hacked to pieces.”
Lu Boshe bowed low to Chen Gong, saying, “You are the salvation of the Cao family. But be at ease and rest, I will find you a bed in my humble cottage.”
Lu Boshe then rose and went into the inner chamber where he stayed a long time. When he came out, he said, “There is no good wine in the house. I am going over to the village to get some for you.”
And he hastily mounted his donkey and rode away. The two travelers sat a long time. Suddenly they heard at the back of the house the sound of sharpening a knife.
Cao Cao said to Chen Gong, “He is not my real uncle. I am beginning to doubt the meaning of his going off. Let us listen.”
So they silently stepped out into a straw hut at the back.
Presently someone said, “Bind before killing, eh?”
“As I thought,” said Cao Cao. “Now unless we strike first, we shall be taken!”
Suddenly Cao Cao and Chen Gong dashed in, sword in hand, and slew the whole household male and female, in all eight persons.
After this they searched the house. In the kitchen they found a pig bound ready to kill.
“You were too suspicious,” said Chen Gong, “and we have slain honest folks!”
Cao Cao and Chen Gong at once mounted and rode away. Soon they met their host Lu Boshe coming home, and over the saddle in front of him they saw two vessels of wine. In his hands he carried fruits and vegetables.
“Why are you going, Sirs?” Lu Boshe called to them.
“Wanted people dare not linger,” said Cao Cao.
“But I have bidden them kill a pig! Why do you refuse my poor hospitality? I pray you ride back with me.”
Cao Cao paid no heed, urging his horse forward. But he suddenly drew his sword and rode back after Lu Boshe.
“Who is that coming along?” called Cao Cao.
Lu Boshe turned and looked back, and Cao Cao at the same instant cut Lu Boshe down.
Chen Gong was frightened.
“We were wrong enough before,” cried Chen Gong. “What now is this?”
“When he got home and saw his family killed, think you he would bear it patiently? If he had raised an alarm and followed us, we should have been killed.”
“To kill deliberately is very wrong,” said Chen Gong.
“Better that I betray the whole world than let the world betray me” was the reply.
Chen Gong only thought. They rode on some distance by moonlight and presently knocked up an inn for shelter. Having first fed their horses, Cao Cao was soon asleep, but Chen Gong lay thinking.
“I took him for a true man and left all to follow him, but he is as cruel as a wolf. If I spare him, he will do more harm later,” thought Chen Gong.
And Chen Gong rose intending to kill his companion.
In his heart lie cruelty and venom, he is no true man;
In no way does he differ from his enemy Dong Zhuo.
The further fortunes of Cao Cao will be told in later chapters.