After coffee, the six men took a walk along the top of the hill. Captain Patridge had a string of fruit trees bordering a trail along the ridge leading from his hill to the next. They walked in the shade of the trees as the sun started to set in a blaze of orange and purple fire along the western horizon. Fruit hung heavy in the trees. Robert smelled the sweet, ripening scent of peaches, plums and apricots. If he hadn’t been so full, he would have picked one or two to eat while walking.
Willow walked behind him. She didn’t speak a word of English, and she kept her gaze on the ground. When she answered his questions, he had to strain to hear her whisper. Her village dialect confused him. She never asked a question and at times could not answer some of Robert’s. His tongue still found the Mandarin he was learning cumbersome. Though she didn’t say that she couldn’t understand him, he saw her nodding at the wrong times. Was it possible that she didn’t understand the Ningpo and Shanghai style of Mandarin Robert was learning? This bothered him. He was curious to know more about her. China was a strange land with one written language and many spoken ones.
After the walk, they gathered on the veranda to enjoy the soothing breeze. The temperature, though humid and warm, was lower than in Ningpo. The greatest blessing was that there were no mosquitoes. Robert didn’t miss Ningpo in the slightest. He was glad he’d come even if he had to put up with Patridge’s outrageous stories.
Patridge’s summerhouse was built in a Mediterranean style with a wide, covered veranda overlooking the ocean. From the veranda streams were visible running down from the hills. The walls were made of thick, plastered stone, which kept the house cool on the hottest days. Blue glazed tiles covered the roof. An open garden in the Roman style was located at the center of the rectangular house. All the outside doors were made of thick sturdy timbers and the windows had shutters that could be barred from the inside.
A natural spring fed into a storage tank, which took up half the kitchen. The water tasted fresh and was worth the trip since the water in Ningpo always tasted so bad.
When Patridge had guests, which was often, he entertained in a large room that faced west. He slept with his concubine of the moment in a large bedroom office combination on the north side of the courtyard. The guest bedrooms were on the south side. All the rooms, except the servant and concubine quarters, had doors that opened on the enclosed garden. The Chinese servants and about a dozen concubines lived in a separate building behind the kitchen. That’s where Patridge had sent Guan-jiah.
The stables were built against the servants’ quarters, and those rooms smelled of manure and horse piss. This building was taller than the house and offered a windbreak when storms came howling across the island from the east.
Robert thought that if he ever had a house like this, he would build the stables so no one had to smell the animals. He had to admit that Patridge had done well for himself in China. He wondered if he would match the man’s success.
Captain Patridge passed around a box of gold tipped Egyptian Shah cigarettes for an after dinner smoke. Robert searched his pockets for a match, but Willow was there first with a candle. He took hold of her hand to steady the flame. Her skin was warm and smooth. He didn’t want to let go. With the sun gone, the sounds of frogs and crickets filled the night with their mating calls. One of the other concubines lit a half-dozen lanterns along the veranda. The dim, flickering lights drew in some moths and a few beetles.
“It’s been a good day, gentlemen,” Captain Roundtree said, as he stubbed out his cigarette and stood. “There were no pirates. We have women to keep us warm and none of us is hungry or broke. I’m going to turn in. It was a long, hard trip from Hong Kong. The weather was a beast.” Captain Roundtree left with the concubine who’d been serving him through dinner. His third officer and the two midshipmen also excused themselves and left with their concubines.
“Where can I find a supply of these?” Robert asked, holding up the cigarette.
“I’ll connect you with the man I buy them from,” Captain Patridge replied. He put a hand over his mouth to cover a yawn before continuing. “He lives in Shanghai but will have no problem getting some to you in Ningpo.”
There was one lantern left glowing. The concubine who’d lit them had extinguished the others. Captain Patridge’s concubine had already gone inside.
Patridge stood and looked at Robert. “How does this compare to Ningpo?”
“You were right about everything. I’m grateful for your invitation to spend the summer here.”
“Take advantage of Willow,” Patridge said. “Although she doesn’t play musical instruments or dance, she’ll make your night pleasant. After you’ve finished with her, I’m sure you will sleep soundly.” He squeezed Robert’s shoulder. “Let me know at breakfast if you’re happy with her. I have others if she isn’t satisfactory.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Robert said. He couldn’t look Patridge in the eye, and his ears burned from embarrassment. He was glad when Patridge went inside.
Willow’s presence in the darkness behind Robert worked like a magnet arousing his sexual cravings. What was he to do? When the Sabbath came, there was no church to attend and no minister to bolster his resolve not to stray from the path he’d chosen. His heightened desire reminded him that he’d failed once with Me-ta-tae. He didn’t want to fail again. Every time he strayed, he paid a price. With Me-ta-tae, he’d made an enemy of Hollister. In Ireland, he’d embarrassed himself and his family. Why didn’t he have the strength to wait until he found a proper wife?
The lone glowing lantern hung from a rafter to his left. The breeze buffeted it about causing it to make creaking sounds and to cast strange shifting shadows over the table. The chair Robert sat on felt hard, and he squirmed about attempting to find a comfortable position. Due to the silence, he heard Willow’s shallow breathing. He wanted to look at her but didn’t allow it. He cursed his libido.
The food and wine made him feel lazy. His eyes drifted shut. He thought of the large corner room that Captain Patridge had made available for him. The room at the consulate had been smothering and cramped. The room here had a wide-open window facing the ocean and mosquito netting around the bed to keep him safe from the bloodsuckers. He wondered if that net protected him from Willow.
Patridge said there were other women implying that if Willow did not please him, another would take her place. Just the idea caused his heart to become excited and palpitate as if it had a life of its own. The constant struggle was exhausting.
In an attempt to get his mind off the woman standing behind him, Robert focused on the brig sitting at its anchorage in the small cove. Lights glowed from the aft windows. He heard a bell ringing from the ship marking the time. He counted eleven. It was late. He was tired, but he couldn’t move. Willow’s presence was like an anchor holding him in the chair. He wanted to take her with him, but his conscience said it was wrong. It was like he was part of a painting. He didn’t know why, but it reminded him of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. It was all so dark except for two people dressed in white and glowing as if they were lit from within like Willow and Robert on that veranda.
“Do you need anything, Master?” It was Guan-jiah, who must have been in the shadows watching.
“No.” Robert was so drowsy that his tongue felt thick and heavy.
“Master, in China we believe that we have found the true meaning of life and understand it. For us, the end of life lies not in life after death, for the idea that we live to die, as taught by Christianity, is baffling and makes no sense. The true end, as we Chinese believe it, is the enjoyment of a simple life and in harmonious social relationships while we are alive.”
“Are you a philosopher too?” Robert asked, impressed. He knew what Guan-jiah was doing. He was telling Robert it was all right to spend the night with Willow. Was Guan-jiah reading his mind? Robert narrowed his eyes and studied his servant wondering if the eunuch was up to something.
“No Master, but I have had much time to contemplate life and its mysteries. I have sought answers to my questions for many years.”
“And this contemplation must have started when you were in that Buddhist monastery?”
He nodded. “Have I offended you, Master?”
“No. I value your advice. Thank you. You may go now.” Guan-jiah turned and walked into the darkness. With a sluggish effort, Robert stood to go inside. Willow blew out the last lantern and quietly followed.
Once in his room, Willow came to take off his shirt. Kneeling, she slipped off his shoes, unbuckled his belt and pulled down his trousers. He stepped out of his pants and stood watching her undress. The sight of her naked body thrilled him. He found that he had trouble drawing in a full breath. Then she blew out the candles plunging the room into gloom. He listened to her climb onto the bed.
Robert was glad that the darkness hid his guilt and his erection. A long moment passed while he listened to the only sounds in the room—the pounding of his heart and the breathing of two people. He decided to accept what Willow offered. After all, he was a traveler on a lonely journey, who occasionally embraced human affections the same way that he took the sun and water.
It was as if there were two people inside him. The first person was the man who had come from Ireland running away from his sins. The second man was the one who’d come from Ningpo. That man felt lonely and tired, but there was no despair like there’d been in the first man when he’d arrived in China. If Guan-jiah hadn’t stepped out of the darkness and talked to him, Robert was sure he would have slept alone. His servant had awakened the second person inside him—the one that was suppressed.
He was still nervous, so Robert turned away from the bed to the washbasin sitting on top the small three-legged table in the corner. After rinsing his hands several times more than he needed, he searched in the darkness for a towel.
He sensed her presence before she took his hands in hers. She hadn’t made a sound. She led him to the bed where the starlight coming through the window lit up the sheets. When Willow stepped closer, the light reflected from her face and her bare shoulders. The sight of her naked skin caused his breath to catch in his throat. He had trouble swallowing. There was no warmth in her eyes, but they weren’t cold either. Robert took her face between his hands and bent to kiss her lips. She slipped away, crawled under the thin sheet. He followed. She twisted around snuggling her face against his neck. Her thin chest pressed against him, and she molded her body to his. Her breasts were small and soft. Any doubts that this was something that he shouldn’t be doing fled. He rolled over on top of her. She was wet inside and received him easily.
The sex act was over in a few strokes.
Willow quietly cleaned him with a damp cloth and then disappeared from the room. He waited for her to return, but she didn’t. She hadn’t said one word. Robert wished she’d spoken—like where she was from, what was her favorite food, or if she’d had a good time. He wanted to make her smile or laugh. It disappointed him that there wasn’t more to it.
Then he heard the sound of breathing at the open window. Robert saw the figure of a man there—about the same size as Guan-jiah. When the shape turned to leave, Robert hurried to the window and watched his servant merge with the night.
Robert returned to the bed and struggled with the discomfort of Guan-jiah watching him have intercourse with Willow. He was sure his servant had also spied on him when he’d made love to Me-ta-tae back in Ningpo. Robert had been with several women since going off to college at fifteen. The idea of going through life and never knowing such pleasure was horrible to contemplate. He had no idea how Catholic priests survived and was glad he didn’t belong to that religion. Maybe the only way Guan-jiah came close to experience what it was like to be with a woman was to stand in the shadows and watch. Robert decided that if he could somehow make up for Guan-jiah’s loss by not complaining, he would keep quiet. However, that wasn’t going to be easy.
Robert’s encounter with Willow was an extension of the meal as if Patridge had planned for her to be the dessert. He no longer made the effort to kill the guilt, although it was lurking nearby. It was like a sleeping monster waiting to pounce on him like a lion if he stumbled.
He was beginning to understand that, unlike Victorian England, China with its Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist influences fit who he’d been while in College. Here he knew that if he took up his old Belfast ways, he’d not be condemned. Here, if Robert so desired, he could follow where his nature led him instead of fighting it. However, he hadn’t sailed halfway around the world to indulge in women.
* * * *
The concubines were not there for breakfast. Two male servants put the food and drinks on the table.
“How was your night, gentlemen?” Patridge asked, as Robert leaned back in his chair with a full belly. “I hope that it was satisfactory.”
Roundtree belched. “You have splendid concubines, Patridge. Why do you think we didn’t sail straight to Shanghai to unload our cargo and take on a new one? It’s a long voyage back to England, and your women are better than prostitutes.”
“I want to keep my employees happy,” Patridge replied.
Robert wondered if he would return next summer if the captain invited him again. After last night with Willow, Robert wasn’t sure this was what he was looking for. He wanted to know the woman first. He considered taking his vacation next summer in Shanghai. He could stay with William Lay and his grumpy brother Horatio. Shanghai held more people from England and Europe. If Robert spent his month there, he might meet someone he could talk to.
* * * *
By midmorning a dozen men arrived from the Sampson, a schooner that had dropped anchor near the brig sometime during the night. They arrived on the veranda armed with cutlasses and muskets. One man had a healing scab that ran down the right side of his face. The scab started above his eye and stopped at his jaw line. What with his tousled hair and leathery skin, he looked like a true pirate. Robert shuddered, because the sight reminded him of the close call with the pirates while sailing on the Iona. It was shocking to be reminded that life was so fragile.
“Why come here armed like this, Captain Bainbridge?” Patridge asked. “Has something happened?”
“Aye,” Captain Bainbridge of the Sampson said in a rush. “Taiping rebels took the Nancy on the Woosung River about twenty miles above Shanghai. My ship had moved farther from shore after unloading our opium when they struck.”
“Slow down, man,” Patridge said. He beckoned for a servant to pour wine for Bainbridge and his men. “Take a drink to calm yourself before you continue. This is serious. I want to hear every word.”
Bainbridge gulped his wine. “The rebels hit us by surprise early in the morning swarming from the shore in sampans. They overwhelmed the small boats surrounding the Nancy and captured the unarmed Chinese boat people that work for us.
“Most of the brig’s crew managed to dive into the river and swim to the Sampson. If we hadn’t put up a hard fight, we would’ve fallen too. Though we managed to escape, the boat people, the brig and the opium were taken.”
Robert wondered when the man was going to find time to breathe.
“We saw old captain Tingle and a few of his crew that didn’t get overboard in time,” Bainbridge said. “They put up a stiff fight. I’m sure he’s dead by now. The Taipings don’t take kindly to opium and want to see all foreigners beheaded anyway.”
Bainbridge held out a Chinese placard. “I took this off a rebel I killed.”
Captain Patridge interpreted it into English. “The Taipings are calling on the people to rise up and exterminate the Imps and Monkeys, which of course refers to us.”
“The boat people may live a few more days,” Captain Bainbridge said. “If they can’t produce a ransom, they’ll be beheaded.”
Robert remembered what had happened to the Bengalis in Patridge’s story. He questioned his decision to come to China. He wanted his family to be proud of him and forgive him for his sins, but to do that he had to become a success. However, if he didn’t live long enough, he would never achieve his goals.
“We can’t allow the Taipings to get away with this,” Patridge said.
“I agree,” Robert said, without thinking. “These Taipings sound like cowards. They’re nothing but common thugs and thieves. I want to be part of whatever you do.” He felt himself wilting under the combined glare of everyone and regretted his outburst. He then remembered the moment he had spoken out during dinner last night. Everyone had stared at him then too. Why hadn’t he learned from that mistake and kept his mouth shut? He hated acting like a fool.
“It’ll be my pleasure to have you with us,” Patridge said, breaking the silence. Robert relaxed at the reprieve and started to breathe again. He was glad that Patridge had agreed to take him along.
“We’ll take both ships to the Lookong receiving station and pick up more men and weapons there,” Patridge said. “We should reach the Taiping camp along the Woosung River in two days and hit them before the sun rises. If luck is with us, we’ll reclaim the opium before the Taipings burn it, and we will free the boat people.”
* * * *
Before leaving for the Lookong receiving station, Robert instructed Guan-jiah to return to Ningpo. “But, Master, my place is beside you. If you are going into danger, I should be there too.”
“And if you die, Guan-jiah, who will take care of your father and mother? Has anyone else in your family sacrificed as you have?”
Guan-jiah’s expression was unreadable. “You are right, Master. I will return to Ningpo and await your return.” He kowtowed and left to pack his meager belongings. As he walked off, Robert followed his servant’s frail slender frame with his eyes. He looked too young to think so old.