On rare occasions, when Hollister had someone in for dinner, usually one of the European or English merchants, the visitor sometimes brought a concubine or a prostitute with him. This reminded Robert of the easy pleasures this alien land offered—thoughts that bothered him just because he was having them.
These visitations triggered wild, erotic dreams where he had two or more of the delicate, dark-haired women of this land in his bed. Having such dreams made him feel that he had no control over himself. It left him feeling as if he were a carpet that had the dirt beat out of it in Ireland only to be walked on and soiled once in China.
Robert had an image he wanted others to see when they thought of him. He didn’t want others to him as one who was into lasciviousness even in his youth’s worst agony. He wanted others to see him as a God loving man who worked hard by day and treated others with respect and courtesy.
However, his nature, as he’d understand it later, wanted to believe in love like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet but without the tragedy. To Captain Patridge such thinking made Robert into an old-fashioned nut, or to the Chinese a cooked seed, meaning someone who lived in a world of fantasy.
As time passed, his perspective underwent a gradual change. Eventually, when Robert saw a pair of love-ducks idling in the waterweeds in spring, he’d stop and admire them for what they had. When on a snowy night, he saw by the light of the moon the reflection of a white mountain sandwiched between clouds making it look transparent, he’d be moved almost to tears. Then he believed that it was God’s way to show him love—nature was man’s best mentor, as the Chinese said. It just took a practiced eye to see it.
Robert walked in the evenings along the muddy boat trackers’ footpath beside the river. Western ships sat at anchor with lanterns glowing from aft windows. Those lights floating above the water created a scene that was poetically beautiful—almost as if the world had turned into a fantasy full of quiet and passionate people and those boats transformed into fairy tale castles.
Then at other times he’d hear the pirates and the war junks out in the river firing cannons at one another, and the violence shattered his tranquil mood.
Early in March of 1855, Hollister moved out of the consulate. “I built a thirty-eight-foot sloop for a price I could never get outside China,” he said, “so I’m not going to waste my money. I’m going to live on it.”
Robert wondered what it was going to be like living alone in the consulate. Of course, he had Guan-jiah and Payne during the days, but at night there was only solitude to keep him company. It didn’t feel right. Robert grew up in a house full of people and even at college he’d been surrounded by his fellow students.
After Hollister left, Robert had trouble sleeping through the nights. Every sound woke him. Even the dead silence bothered him. He couldn’t sleep for hours. He wanted the noise of the crickets for company. He learned to hate being alone. The nights felt longer, and he worried that he might go insane. He saw things in the dark that always evaporated when he got up to confront his imaginings.
“Have you christened your boat?” Robert asked.
“And waste a good bottle of wine.” Hollister laughed. “There’s no need for that. It’s called The Dawn. I’ll keep my sloop anchored out in the river with the rest of them. It’s the only way to escape Ningpo, its stench, its smothering walls and prying, accusing eyes.”
It was the way Payne said those last words that caused Robert to suspect he knew what the missionaries were saying about him behind his back. “He’s going to hell living with that whore,” Robert had heard one say.
“If he gives her up and asks Christ for forgiveness, he still has a chance,” another replied. “But nothing can save her. She’s doomed.”
“I disagree,” a third added. “If she takes Christ into her life, she still has a chance.”
Robert’s father was a pastor, so he wasn’t sure what he should think. He believed that Christ wasn’t as judgmental as some of the ministers across the river thought. After all, He’d said, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone’ when he’d defended a woman accused of adultery.
In desperation, Hart invited Payne to play games of chess with him in the early evenings and attempted to lead their conversations away from China and the topics the missionaries usually brought up. His goal was to keep Payne there so the nights wouldn’t last so long.
“Have you read any Dickens?” Robert asked one rainy night. “Oliver Twist is an interesting story about the workhouse and child labor and the recruitment of children as criminals. I was wondering what you think of the hypocrisy that it reveals through Dickens’ sarcasm and dark humor?”
“Do you find it wrong that the children should be used as criminals?” Hollister asked in a challenging tone.
Robert didn’t understand why Payne was so upset about it. “Isn’t it obvious? Children should be raised properly and be taught the virtues and the word of God,” Hart replied. “They shouldn’t be used like slaves risking their lives for the betterment of some rogue.”
“Well, I haven’t read this Oliver Twist, but I believe it’s better to be working for thieves than being driven to an honest death in the workhouse, where you never get enough to eat. I should know. My mother died soon after my birth, and my father died when I was six. I spent several months in a workhouse before I found my auntie.”
“You were in the workhouse?” Robert replied, surprised. “You’re fortunate you had a loving aunt to rescue you from such a horror.”
“She didn’t rescue me. I managed to escape and went looking for her. She was my father’s sister. Until I knocked on her door, I’d never seen her before. My father didn’t approve of her. He believed in God, and she didn’t. She was kind enough to take me in. After I finished my education, she arranged this position in the British consulate through an acquaintance of her’s. She was good to me—better than my father. He taught me nothing but verses from the Bible and the back of his hand.”
Feeling uncomfortable, Robert attempted to get the conversation back to books. “You should read Oliver Twist, but since you haven’t, what books have you read?”
“I read The North China Herald and the London Times when it comes in,” Hollister replied. “I don’t have time for books. However I do have time for a good game of cards or chess, and our games would be more entertaining if we wagered money. I’ll match you five yuan for each game.”
“Five!” Robert said. He’d never gambled before. “Let’s start with one yuan.” He was willing to risk that small amount. After all, Robert beat him three out of four games.
After they started gambling, Hollister paid more attention to what he was doing, and he won half the games. Once money was involved, the conversation dried up. The fun of a simple competition that exercised the mind became tense.
When he won, Payne bragged about it and scraped the money off the table with a cackle of glee. “I’m going to take all your money,” he said. “That last move of yours was stupid. Now I’ve got you.” Payne had a few traits in common with one of Dickens’ other characters, Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge from the Christmas Carol. When Payne lost, he cast dark glances Robert’s way as if Robert were cheating. That made Robert uncomfortable, but it didn’t stop him from always playing his best. Besides, Robert found the man’s disagreeable character better than being alone.
Hollister’s behavior eventually turned Robert away from gambling. He learned that greed had a way of taking hold of people and turning them slightly crazy. Several times over the next few months Payne sailed away for a day or more. When he did this, Robert had conflicting emotions. On the one hand he envied Hollister for living as he wanted—something Robert was sure he’d never duplicate. However, it bothered him when Hollister left without letting him know. The quiet, lonely nights seemed unending.
When mornings arrived, it was a treat to have Guan-jiah walk through the gate to start his workday. Robert taught him how to play chess and occasionally managed to get him to stay late for a game.
Since all but one of the missionaries lived across the river and seldom came into Ningpo, days passed where he didn’t see one English soul. He spent his evenings reading his friend’s old letters, which turned into a dull ache that took away his energy and enthusiasm for the next day’s work. He didn’t think he could’ve felt lonelier if he’d been the last penguin in Antarctica. He reconsidered Patridge’s invitation to spend the summer on Zhoushan Island. Patridge’s noxious laugh and endless chatter would be better than this.
* * * *
One Wednesday before sundown Me-ta-tae visited. She looked unhappy. She wore black silk pants and a deep-red, patterned blouse with five bats flying above several lotus blossoms. Her hair was tied back into a bun with a silver metal pin that had dangling crystals hanging from it holding the bun together. This exposed her appealing pixie ears, slender neck and delicate bone structure. Her skin was pale and smooth like creamy porcelain. Robert couldn’t help himself. His fingers tingled with the desire to explore her body.
Intending to cheer her up, he hurried to the consulate garden and cut a dozen dark-red roses. Her eyes fluttered and she attempted to hide a smile when he presented them to her.
“The weather is perfect for the roses,” he said, seeing this as an opportunity to practice his Mandarin. He also wanted to keep her longer since he thought of her as better company than Guan-jiah. “The color contrasts well with your skin.”
She touched one petal. “The dew still clings to it,” she said, and smiled. One drop clung to a fingertip, and she examined it as if it were a precious jewel. The sight of her doing this was like a bright light bursting through a stormy sky. It reminded Robert of his sister Mary when something made her exceptionally happy like seeing interesting shapes in the clouds.
“This season brings out the best vegetables they sell in the market,” she said. Her eyes came up to meet his. The way she looked at him made his stomach ache. He hid his hands behind his back before he reached for her. He stared at her lips imagining what they would feel like against his. He couldn’t think of anything to say. His thoughts were tangled into knots.
“I have seen you walking alone beside the river in the late afternoons,” she said.
“I enjoy those walks.” He managed to get out, knowing exactly why he was feeling nervous. “I’ve noticed that the bok choy was fresh and crisp when you cooked it. I miss your cooking.” It was meaningless talk but he couldn’t think of anything else to say. He didn’t want her to leave.
“The prices are better this time of year,” she said. Her eyes avoided his. He watched her struggle to keep her shy smile under control. It was obvious that she was enjoying this as much as he was. He twined his fingers together and locked his hands behind his back lest they escape and reach for her.
“The vegetables in the south are of a better quality than here,” she said. “Tell me what you want, and I will cook it for you. Maybe you do not like walking alone beside the river. Maybe you would like me to join you.”
Robert imagined Me-ta-tae walking beside him and cooking in the kitchen for him. When she’d lived in the consulate with Payne, she’d done all the cooking. When Payne had moved out, the good food had gone with him. “I’m pleased that you came for a visit,” he said. “How is it on The Dawn with Mr. Hollister?”
Her expression changed from sad and serene to sour. Robert regretted driving her smile away. He missed it. “I hate it!” she said. “I don’t like living on a boat.”
Robert shifted from foot to food unable to respond. “Is there anything the consulate can do for you?” he asked.
She stamped her feet. “I’m bored and lonely.”
“I understand,” he replied, and allowed one hand to escape. He touched Me-ta-tae’s bare arm with his fingertips. Her skin was soft and inviting. An image of her staying with him in the consulate appeared in his mind. He saw her walking through the empty rooms naked. He blushed at the thought and took his hand back as if burned.
“Mr. Hollister won’t allow me to entertain my friends on his boat. And when he loses at horses or cards, he yells and hits me. He scares me when he does that.” She pulled up a sleeve and there was a bruise on her upper arm.
It was difficult for Robert to believe that Payne had hit her. Since he worked for the British consulate, he was supposed to be a gentleman. Robert was sure that the government did not tolerate such behavior. The bruise must have been from an accident of some kind. He didn’t want to believe her.
When she left, he bitterly felt the isolation and realized that he’d come to China without much thought. That night was full of lusty dreams. In the morning when he awoke, he discovered the blankets twisted around his legs, and he had an enormous erection.
The next day Robert spent a lot of time thinking about his passion, which overpowered reason and conscience. He saw his life as a Christian full of constant warfare, because he had to struggle just to deny lust. However, it was a necessary fight to live soberly, righteously and godly.
* * * *
That Saturday Guan-jiah said that Me-ta-tae was back waiting outside and wanting to see Robert. He invited her in. As night arrived, they sat before the fire in his room and he served jasmine tea. The look on her face told him that something was bothering her. “Is something wrong?” he asked.
“I’m worried that Mr. Hollister is going to abandon me,” she said, and then broke down in tears.
William Lay, the assistant to the British Vice-Counsel in Shanghai, had told Robert what happened to women who lived with foreigners. Hart couldn’t stand the thought of Me-ta-tae becoming a whore for sailors.
“Payne would be stupid to abandon you,” he said. “I’d never do that.” He regretted his outburst immediately but said nothing to change its meaning. In that moment, he imagined that Hollister would sail away. She’d be his woman. After all, she wasn’t Payne’s wife in the Christian way. She was only his concubine. He’d paid for her like buying a hen. It wasn’t exactly like adultery.
“I’d treat you better,” he added, and felt the heat in his face as it turned red.
Me-ta-tae’s lower lip trembled and her eyes watered. Without thinking of the possible consequences, Robert took hold of her arm. She looked at him with eyes full of tears. He pulled her onto his lap. Hot blood rushed into his head. His arms circled her waist. He kissed her neck. His hands found their way under her blouse. He caressed her breasts discovering that the smoothness and heat of her naked skin surpassed his imagination.
They moved to his bed and their clothing ended on the floor. Robert sensed movement outside his half-open door but ignored it. Touching her naked body excited him beyond his self-control. Soon after he entered her, it was over. He caressed her to keep the passion alive, but she jerked away from him. Avoiding Robert’s eyes, she slipped off the bed and started to dress.
“Don’t go.” There was a pitiful sound in his voice like he was begging. He couldn’t stand it.
“I’m leaving,” she said. Robert heard a scuffling noise outside his door as if someone was hurrying away. Then Me-ta-tae left without saying another word.
Robert felt confused and empty. It wasn’t as if she were the first woman he’d been with, but that thought didn’t stop him from feeling cheap. With her abrupt departure, he discovered that he had a yearning for something more, but he couldn’t put words to it.
The next morning Guan-jiah came to tell Robert that Hollister was outside asking for him. “He’s angry, Master. I don’t recommend speaking to him. Not after last night.”
Robert felt terrible. She must’ve told Hollister what happened. He despised himself. Me-ta-tae had come to him for comfort. He couldn’t deny that she was desirable, and he was a bull in heat. It was a mutual act, but it still was another defeat. He didn’t want to face Payne, so he said, “Make excuses for me, Guan-jiah. Send him away.” Robert was acting like a coward but what other choice did he have if he wanted to avoid a fight. Jealousy was unpredictable and dangerous, and Payne had every right. Guan-jiah nodded and left the room.
“What do you mean he isn’t here?” Payne yelled. Robert heard every word from where he was hiding behind the door. “Not only does he cheat at chess, but he’s trying to steal my woman too. You tell him I’ll be back.”
Robert was mortified. He never cheated at chess. How could Hollister say such a horrible thing? And he wasn’t stealing his woman from him. She’d come to him willingly.
Payne didn’t return to work for a week. Then he ended his job with the consulate and sailed away. Me-ta-tae went with him. Robert felt more despondent. The affair left him feeling guilty. The fact that Hollister quit his job surprised Hart. The man never had enough money because of his gambling loses. Hollister was living way beyond his means. Robert wondered how he managed. Maybe his reason for leaving was to avoid his creditors.
Guan-jiah eventually came to Robert. “Master, do not think of that woman. Me-ta-tae is not good. She seduced the previous interpreter, and Master Hollister was angry with him too. They had a big fight. The next day that foreigner was gone. I followed her once and discovered she was also having sex with one of the merchants.”
Robert looked at him sharply and remembered the noise in the hallway. He’d been watching them make love. He started to scold Guan-jiah but fought back his anger. Could it be that his servant was living vicariously through watching others have intercourse, because he couldn’t? He kept silent out of pity. Despite such depravity, Guan-jiah had a good heart. Robert refused to judge him. What would he have done?
“Master,” Guan-jiah said, “it is best to take life easy and to find your way across the river by searching out stepping-stones hidden just below the surface one at a time. Nothing is wrong with falling and getting soaked sometimes.”
* * * *
By mid-June, Robert could scarcely breathe because of the sultry heat. He spent twelve hours a day studying Chinese, several more hours working at the consulate and a few attempting to sleep. The mosquitoes made it impossible. He recalled Captain Patridge’s invitation and felt it was a good way to escape.
On July fourth in 1855, he received a communication from Shanghai telling him that he’d been nominated to the position of provisional assistant in the consulate with a salary of 270 pounds a year, about twelve hundred Chinese yuan.
Robert determined that whatever his income, one-tenth of it would go to charitable and religious purposes. It was his way to atone for what had happened between him and Me-ta-tae.
He had now spent enough time in China to earn some vacation time, so he left Ningpo during the hottest part of summer to stay with Captain Patridge not realizing how much that decision was going to change his life.