Living with a secret had not treated Robert Hart with kindness. Today he hoped to mend this mistake with help from an empress.
In the mornings before he got out of bed he felt like he was still the young man who arrived in China in 1854, but mirrors do not lie. They expose the truth. The mirror before him that was deep inside the Forbidden City at the heart of Peking was no different.
The image revealed a balding, old man dressed in an imperial, red silk, Chinese court robe. Robert looked in the glass and saw the reflection of a man who resembled a giant sea turtle with his head protruding from its protective shell. The eyes had deep lines of sadness etched around them like a parched alluvial plain scarred from ancient catastrophes.
There was a Mandarin square known as a rank badge on his robe. Two embroidered peacocks were displayed on it—one walking and one in flight. The peacock was the symbol of a third grade civil official. Robert was Inspector General of Chinese Maritime Customs, chief adviser for the Emperor, and the Senior Guardian of the Heir Apparent of the Ch’ing dynasty. Queen Victoria of Great Britain had knighted him in 1893 along with a grand cross and a baronetcy. More than a dozen countries had honored him over the years. Even the Vatican in 1885 had made him a Commandeur of the Order of Pius IX. Much had happened since Robert left Ireland in 1854 as a commoner to become an interpreter for the British consulate in China.
“Inspector General,” a eunuch said. “Please come. The Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi is ready to see you.”
Robert adjusted the cap on his head. A peacock feather, another emblem of his rank, protruded from the cap at a jaunty angle. The lower ranks wore a pheasant’s feather. On top of the cap was a translucent blue ball, another symbol of his rank.
He turned and looked into the single lidded eyes of the eunuch who’d spoken to him. “I’m ready,” he said.
“You’ll have twenty minutes,” the eunuch replied.
Hart took out his pocket watch to check the time.
Eunuchs stood on either side of him and offered their arms as supports. Yesterday he’d almost slipped climbing the stairs at home. Since servants whispered to others about their masters, the story had made the rounds of the teahouses.
Only eunuchs were allowed to live and work in the Forbidden City, and there were thousands to serve the Emperor, his wives and concubines. About fifty thousand boys voluntarily castrated themselves each year. One couldn’t apply for the job without being qualified. Many were rejected.
Most foreigners considered such behavior barbaric and universally condemned it. However, Robert knew why the boys made the ultimate sacrifice. To them, it was worth the gamble. After getting a job inside the Forbidden City, the eunuch’s family no longer lived in poverty or faced hunger and starvation. The first virtue in China was filial piety. Life revolved around the parents.
Curiosity accompanied Robert on that walk toward the Palace of Benevolent Tranquility. This Empress had competed against three thousand women for the attention and affections of an Emperor and was the only one to give him a son, an heir. In 1861, she’d seen her husband, Emperor Hsien-feng, die. She then spent decades struggling against corruption and stifling court etiquette to shepherd two emperors onto the throne—first her son, whom she watched die, and now a nephew.
The morning sun reflected off the gold colored, roof tiles, and it caught Robert’s attention as he crossed a wide stone paved courtyard of an acre or more. The Forbidden City enclosed about two hundred acres with hundreds of buildings inside the vermilion colored walls. As he entered the throne room, a eunuch speaking Mandarin announced his name. “Inspector General Robert Hart.”
The Empress sat on a couch located in the center of a raised platform. Her gown of golden-yellow satin was embroidered with pink peonies. Her headdress was made of pearls and jade with flowers on the sides and a phoenix in the center. Over her gown she wore a cape covered with pearls the size of canary eggs. What she wore was enough to make any man wealthy.
On either side of her couch eunuchs held man-sized feather fans attached to long poles. Dark hand-carved rosewood lanterns with red tassels hung from the high-sculpted ceiling casting muted light throughout the room. Large metal pots resting on tripods glowed with heat from coals burning inside. Since the Empress loved flowers of all kinds, there were vases filled with fresh, colorful flowers from the Forbidden City’s gardens.
Robert had never met her in person. He’d never seen a picture of her. She’d come from humble beginnings the same as he had. At seventy-three her majesty had delicate graceful features, fine skin, slender hands and jewel-encased fingernails. She wore light makeup; her black hair was combed back smoothly. It struck Hart that everything that was China sat here. She must’ve been a beauty in her early years. No wonder she’d worked a spell on the Emperor.
Though his body complained, Robert started to kowtow. It required that he kneel and touch the floor with his head nine times. He was ready to endure the pain out of respect for her. However, she held up a hand and stopped him. Her eunuch had informed her about his mishap on the stairs at his home.
She looked at him with gentle eyes, then nodded at a eunuch to her right, who brought a carved rosewood chair and set it close to the platform. This overwhelmed Robert, for he knew that this was a great honor. Most who came here to speak with the Empress usually did so standing at a distance or spent all their time flat on the floor. Robert was, to the best of his knowledge, the first foreign man ever allowed into her presence.
“How can we look you in the face,” she said, “after what the Boxers did to you?” She leaned toward him. He saw tears gathering in her eyes. This surprised him. “They burned your house, destroyed your treasures. They could’ve killed you.”
“No one’s to blame, your Majesty,” he said. “When the Boxers rebelled, high ideals and the love of their country motivated them.”
“We should have done something to protect you,” she said, “and we should have met long ago, but my ministers wouldn’t allow it. They said it wouldn’t have been proper for us to have a meeting with any foreigner, even you. We have heard so much about you over the years. How long have you been in China?”
“Fifty-four years, your Majesty.”
The Empress nodded. “You have served China well. The Dynasty has been depending on you for our survival. Our only regret is that we did not take more of your advice. It is amazing that almost everything you predicted took place as you said it would. If we had listened more closely, we would have avoided many tragedies, and China would be better off for it today. With all the bad years, the chaos, the Taipings, floods, drought, foreign invasions, your Customs has been the only department that produced a steady revenue.
“You never cheated us. You also helped keep the foreign predators from gnawing on our bones through the treaties you negotiated. You guided the building of our railroads, set up our postal system, and organized our schools so they could compete with the schools of foreign nations. You’re the last of those we counted on to support us, and you are not even Chinese....”
To hear the Empress Dowager giving him credit for the changes he’d helped bring about meant a lot to Hart. He’d helped move China from a medieval kingdom to a modern state that was on more of an equal footing with the industrial powers of the world.
“We want China to have a parliamentary government when I’m gone. Then it can join the world as an equal. We’d value any advice you give about this.”
The head eunuch had told Robert that she might mention this. He had come prepared. “It would be good if a delegation of trusted ministers were sent to Europe and America to study the organization of their democratic governments,” he said. “Then they should report back to you. Be careful, Your Majesty. China is not Britain or America. If you form a republic here, you must make it fit China.”
“We will consider this,” she said. “We want you to know that your thoughts on this matter are taken seriously. We may come to England to consult with you in the future.”
She didn’t know how much he admired her. Without her, he was sure that the China he’d fallen in love with would’ve collapsed long ago. It saddened him to think that almost two thousand years of Imperial rule might end with this woman.
After a pause, Tzu Hsi continued. “We understand that you are leaving us?”
“I’m not well,” he replied. “I’d like to die in England with my family around me.” Part of him wanted to stay but without good health he had determined not to. It didn’t help that insomnia had also plagued him for the last few months. It was with great regret that he had to step down and let others do his job, but he had no choice. He couldn’t perform his job with the efficiency that he demanded of everyone who worked for him. Robert could no longer stand at his desk from 6:30 in the morning until midnight.
Tears returned to fill her eyes. “You know that we would love for you to stay in China. We would do anything to make you happy.”
“Thank you. The offer touches me, but I must go.”
Eunuchs came with tea. Before they served it, one took a sip to make sure it wasn’t poisoned. The Empress didn’t appear to notice what her eunuchs were doing. It was as if only two people sat there. That was understandable. Her eunuchs actions were the same as taking a breath to her. When a cup was handed to Robert, he held it cradled in his hands letting the heat soak through his thin skin.
“We understand that your departure is imminent,” she said.
“Yes, I’m leaving tomorrow by train to Tientsin where a Customs cruiser will take me to England.”
She nodded and put down her teacup. “We were told that there was a reason you asked for this private audience.”
“Yes, your Majesty.” It was well known that the Empress rewarded loyalty. Robert hoped to take advantage of that.
She glanced left and right and the eunuchs backed out of earshot. She leaned toward him as if they were old friends.
“I had a concubine once,” Robert said in a low voice, so the eunuchs couldn’t record what he said for the Imperial archives. It was a chapter out of his life that few knew of, and he wanted to share it with this Empress. He was sure she’d understand like none in Ireland or England would. Not even the members of his family would understand. It was because he didn’t want to embarrass his family that he was planning to burn the diaries that covered those critical years.
“Her name was Ayaou,” he said, but his secret didn’t start with her. It started with a ten-year old boy wanting to sell him a woman.