The Yangtze River had a metallic smell like blood mixed with manure. There was no breeze and it was hot and humid. The creak of the rigging and the stealthy sounds of oars dipping into the muddy yellow colored water were the only noises. The men in the small boats strained and sweated to tow the two armed merchant ships into position to destroy an enemy.
The schooner had eight cannons; the brig, the Maryann, had twelve. Although the merchant ships could bring ten of those cannons to bear on the shore, those eight and six pounders didn’t offer much firepower, so every gun was loaded with sections of chain and iron balls the size of grapes.
Robert imagined the carnage—the yard long pieces of chain twirling through the air ripping flesh and bone rending men like swine being slaughtered. He stared past the boats strung out along the twin cables and studied the multitude of campfires flickering along the far shoreline. There were too many. He feared death. It was warm and humid. When he shivered, it had nothing to do with the temperature. It was as if he were shaking his fear off like a dog shakes water from its coat. He turned from the sight and went below deck to the main cabin of the Maryann where Captain Patridge was meeting with the officers.
As Robert entered the cabin, he saw Patridge spreading a map on the table and putting lead weights on the corners, so the map wouldn’t curl up. Captains Bainbridge and Roundtree stood on either side of him. The junior officers crowded the rest of the table. Robert found a spot behind two of the men and watched over their shoulders.
Patridge pointed a stick at the map. “At the north end of the camp is a crude stockade,” he said. “This is where our boat people are held. I’ve just heard that tomorrow before the Taipings break camp, the boat people will be executed. Usually the Taipings allow their prisoners the choice of joining the rebellion or losing their heads, but because they were involved with us and the cargo was opium, it was decided they are all to die.”
Robert knew next to nothing about the Taiping rebellion. He had heard that the leader of the rebels was a man named Hung Hsiu-chuan, a Christian convert, who claimed he was the new Messiah and the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Robert learned this from the Ningpo missionaries, who said that Hung didn’t comprehend the importance of the Trinity and had taken it on himself to add a third book to the Old and New Testament—this third book was the Taiping Bible.
“Excuse me,” Robert said. All eyes turned on him. He hated being the focus of attention. It made his stomach queasy.
“Yes, Robert,” Patridge replied.
“Will the Taiping leader, Hung Hsiu-chuan, be there? Will we get a chance to capture or kill him and end this rebellion?” Robert had no idea how large the rebellion was.
There was nervous laughter around the table. “No, Robert,” Patridge replied in a condescending tone that caused Robert to burn with embarrassment. “Hung is in his capital city of Nanking surrounded by tens of thousands of his soldiers. His generals do his killing for him. He set himself up as an emperor, and he lives in a palace with hundreds of concubines. To make Nanking his capital, he slaughtered an Imperial army of thirty thousand in 1853. Today he has an army estimated to be more than a million strong. We will be going against a thousand of them—a trifling number don’t you think considering the whole? Does that answer your question?”
“Yes, thank you.” A few of the officers chuckled, and Robert was sure they were laughing at him. His question had revealed how ignorant he was. He should have kept quiet.
Patridge turned back to the map and tapped a spot north of the stockade. “The cargo of opium is piled here close to the river. After the beheadings, the opium will be set on fire. Once it is burning the Taipings will break camp and leave.”
“Where did you hear this?” A junior officer asked.
“Money buys spies,” Patridge replied. “That’s all anyone needs to know.” He glared at the junior officer until the man squirmed. “No, you aren’t the one. You haven’t worked for me long enough to be who I’m looking for, or I’d suspect you gave the Taipings the information about this opium shipment.”
“Surely, you don’t suspect one of us,” Captain Bainbridge said.
“I suspect everyone who works for me and has been in China long enough. Thefts and losses like this have plagued us in this region for two years now. That means someone is selling information about our opium shipments to the Taipings.”
Patridge looked at the faces in the crowded cabin, as if he were attempting to discover the guilty party. “Know this,” he said. “There is a traitor working for me. Anyone who turns that man in will receive a comfortable reward.”
Robert wondered who the traitor was. He jumped at the sound of a sharp crack and saw that Patridge had slapped the table with his stick. “Enough!” He leaned over the map. His hand moved south, below the stockade, where he marked out a wide oval—most of it inland away from the river. “The majority of Taipings are camped here around the prisoner stockade. The situation does not offer us a good range of fire for our cannons.
“The camp extends inland and the Taipings have dug shallow trenches for protection and filled them with spikes. However, they have no defensive positions facing the river. This is where we’ll bring to bear all the firepower of the canons.” He tapped the map below the stockade along the shoreline.
“We want panic among the Taipings, and we do not want to hit our boat people. The landing will take place near the opium. We’ll recover the cargo first; then we will free the prisoners.”
Robert had been in China a year, and the suffering and poverty he’d witnessed were the reasons he’d volunteered for this fight. He hadn’t come to recover opium. The boat people were looked down on by almost everyone. He felt it was his duty to do what he could for them. It was wrong to make opium more important than human life.
On impulse, he said, “Captain.” All eyes shifted to Robert again. He felt a hot flush spreading up his neck and over his face, and he had second thoughts about speaking. However, since he’d committed himself, he wasn’t going to back down. “Would it be possible for at least one of our boats to land closer to the boat people? If we free them, we’ll have more hands to load opium and fight.”
“Hmm,” Patridge replied. Robert watched the captain’s expression change. His face said he didn’t like being interrupted. Then his face became thoughtful. “Yes, you are right,” he said slowly, as if he were still weighing his response. “The boat people could help us get in and out faster.”
Patridge pointed his stick at one of the junior officers standing to Robert’s right. “Unwyn Fiske,” he said, “you will take your boatload of men and make for the shore below the stockade. Get in there and get the boat people out and rejoin the main column over by the opium where I’ll be.”
“Bloody hell,” Unwyn said. “How am I supposed to do that? I don’t speak Chinese and none of my men do either. The original plan was better.” He cast a dark glance at Robert.
Patridge’s eyes swiveled back to Robert, who felt the heat in his face again. “You speak some Mandarin don’t you, Hart?” he asked. “After all, you do work in the British consulate in Ningpo.”
“That’s right, Captain,” Robert replied.
“Then Unwyn will make room in his boat for you. You will be the one to tell these boat people what they are to do. Am I clear?”
Robert nodded and wondered what kind of mess he’d gotten himself into. Instead of being with more than a hundred armed men, he was going to be with a score. He stared at the map and saw that where he was going was closer to what the cannons would be shooting at.
On deck earlier Robert had seen an undermanned gun crew clumsily practicing with an eight pounder. The man carrying the bucket full of chain and grape had slipped and dropped the heavy load spilling its contents. When they fired the practice shot, they missed the floating target by several yards. It occurred to him that one of the cannons could miss the Taipings and hit his group. He should have kept his mouth shut.
Robert considered mentioning his concerns about the cannons, but this time he refrained from speaking. He wished that even one small sloop from the British navy had been with them.
“That’s settled,” Patridge said.
With the attention off Robert, he glanced around and looked at Unwyn, who was glaring at him. They locked eyes for a moment, but Robert broke first and focused his attention on Patridge. He felt his face heating again. What kind of man was this Fiske fellow? Robert squirmed uncomfortably while not looking at the man.
Captain Patridge waited for everyone to look at him before he spoke again. “If we lose the initiative of surprise, I don’t have to tell you what these thousand maniacs will do to us.
“We are only two hundred, but we may not be alone in this fight. There’s an American in Shanghai, a man called Frederick Townsend Ward. He’s a soldier of fortune, a mercenary. The Chinese government commissioned this Ward to build an army to take the city of Sungkiang back from the Taipings. Before we left the Lookong receiving station, I sent a note to Ward letting him know what we’re up to in the hope that he might want to get in on the action as a first move to take Sungkiang.
“To lure him here to help us, I offered part of the opium as a reward. It is the reason we’re here. This was a major shipment, and we are not going to lose it. I want you to tell your men that I will pay a bonus to all involved if we recover all the opium.”
Does that offer include me? Robert thought. After all, I don’t work for him or his company. Then Robert felt ashamed. After all, he hadn’t volunteered to join Patridge in this venture out of greed. If any of that bonus came his way, he’d have a little more to send home to his family. He wouldn’t turn it down, but he wouldn’t ask for it either.
Patridge rubbed his chin while his eyes examined the faces in the room. Then he said, “I’ve met Ward several times. He’s recruiting his army in Shanghai from the waterfront scum, deserters and Filipino cutthroats. The money to finance this army is being squeezed out of the Chinese government and the merchant associations. They want to be rid of the Taipings, because they’re bad for business. My company paid too. That’s enough. Dismissed.”
On the way out, Unwyn put a hand on Robert shoulder and pulled him aside. “What were you doing in there?” he asked.
Robert felt his back stiffen, and he stood a bit straighter. “Stating my opinion.” He didn’t like the tone of Unwyn’s voice and this time he kept contact with the man’s eyes.
“Well, next time you decide to open your mouth, keep it shut. How much combat experience do you have?”
“Aside from a few fistfights back in Belfast when I was drunk, none,” Robert replied.
Unwyn pushed his face closer to Robert. The man’s sour breath spit at him as he said, “When we reach that prisoner stockade, Hart, you are going in alone. Unlike you, I’ve been in combat. I joined the Royal Navy when I was thirteen and served fifteen years before I went to work for Captain Patridge. The reason I left is that I saw too many men wanting to be heroes blown to bits.” Without saying another word, Unwyn stepped away and climbed the ladder to the deck. Robert used his sleeve to wipe the spittle from his face.
He discovered that he’d been holding his breath, so he forced himself to breathe. Robert didn’t doubt what Fiske had said, but he was more afraid of looking like a coward than of dying. His greatest fear was that he’d not perform properly. He had no desire to be a hero.
The small merchant army climbed down the boarding nets and crowded into the boats. The way they were armed and dressed made them look like a band of rowdy pirates. There were just enough men left behind to work the cannons.
A young ship’s boy sat crowded against Robert in the stern of the boat. He felt the boy trembling and noticed a dazed look on his face. “How old are you, son?” he asked.
“Eleven,” the boy replied in a small, quivering voice. His frightened eyes rotated to Robert.
“And your name?” Robert asked.
“Brian,” he replied.
Robert nodded and slipped an arm across the boy’s shoulders. “Brian, I’m afraid too,” he said. “Let me share something with you that will help bolster your courage. Have you ever heard of the Battle of Agincourt, which took place on October twenty-fifth in 1415?”
Brian shook his head. “But I know that October twenty-fifth is St. Crispin’s Day. My dad was a cobbler.” He paused, and then asked, “What happened at Agincourt?”
“Well, King Henry the V, the British King, gave a speech to his troops. He only had six thousand and the French numbered twenty-five thousand. Do you want to hear what King Henry said to his army?”
The boy nodded. He swallowed and Robert watched his Adam’s apple bob up and down. Brian was thin as a tadpole.
“Shakespeare wrote this but it’s still the King’s words. Listen close. ‘If we are marked to die, we are enow to do our country loss; and if to live, the fewer men the greater share of honor. O do not wish one more? But he, which hath no stomach to this fight, let him depart. His passport shall be made and crowns for convoy put into his purse. We would not die in that man’s company that fears his fellowship to die with us.’ ” Robert paused and gave the boy a chance to think and saw that he didn’t understand what King Henry had meant.
“Look, Brian,” he said. “In that speech King Henry said he forgave any man afraid to fight because the odds were so overwhelming against the English army. The king even paid for passage back to English for any man who didn’t want to fight.
“If you want to leave, I’ll speak up for you. If a king can offer a way out like that, I don’t see why you can’t have the same choice.”
Brian shook his head. “No sir,” he said in a heavy cockney accent. “I’m going to stay with my mates. They’d think I was a coward if I left now. Besides, I’m not in this for the honor like that king talked about. You heard. There’s going to be a bonus. That means more money I can send home to my mum. You see my dad died before I learned the trade.”
“That’s my boy,” Robert said, and gave Brian’s arm a squeeze. “Look, Aristotle, a famous Greek philosopher, thought that a courageous person is not one who has no fear, and not one who is overcome by fear, but one who can control fear and act according to a sense of duty. I can see that you know your duty to your mum and your family and are determined not to disappoint. I feel the same way. Stay near me when we get into this fight. I’ll watch out for you.”
“I have seven brothers and three sisters,” Brian said. “This will be one tale I’ll be telling in front of the fire when I get home.” He smiled showing that he had some missing teeth and a few half-rotten ones.
“Who’s talking?” Unwyn said. He stood in the bow of the boat and Robert sat in the stern, wedged in so tightly that he had no room to move. Unwyn’s eyes darted from man to man and stopped on Robert the longest. When his gaze shifted to Brian, Robert felt the boy tremble.
“If anyone gives us away so we lose our surprise, I’ll shoot the bastard between the eyes myself. Keep silent!”
Robert squeezed the boy to reassure him that all was well. There must have been twenty men crammed in that boat. His heart pounded in panic when he couldn’t free the four double-barreled pistols tucked under his belt. Even the twenty-seven-inch cutlass was pinned against a leg. The only weapon he could free was a twelve-inch double-edged dagger in a leather scabbard between his shoulder blades.
Brian’s weapon was a pike. He had no pistol or cutlass.
Looking over his shoulder, Robert saw the masts of the ships outlined by the half-moon and a sky full of stars. If he saw them, so could the Taipings. That was a chilling thought. The sky had cleared, and there was twice as much light compared to when they left the ships. If they were discovered before reaching shore, they would sink to the bottom of the river and drowned. It would be a slaughter. If the Taiping campfires indicated the numbers waiting onshore, the odds were horrible. It looked as if the rebels numbered more than a thousand.
His thoughts were interrupted when the boats swung toward the far side of the river away from the rebel camp. When they reached a position opposite the designated landing place, the boats turned. The banks of oars rose and dipped and the boats shot forward one behind the other.
The orange glow of campfires revealed the moving figures of men. Most wore red jackets and blue trousers. Someone laughed sounding like a hyena. Luck was with them at least for the moment. It looked like Patridge had been correct. Most of the Taiping defenses faced away from the river. Their sentries stood watching for Imperials or Ward’s army expecting an attack from land.
Unwyn gestured to the man at the tiller to guide the boat away from the others. Robert stared at a shore littered with empty sampans. He saw the outline of the prison stockade where the boat people were supposed to be. Inside that area it was dark like spilled ink. What if they’d been moved or what if they were already dead? He shivered at the thought, and Brian looked at him. Robert forced himself to smile to reassure the boy that all was well. He ran his fingers like a comb through the boy’s shaggy brown hair. Brian smiled but his eyes were filled with fear.
Campfires flickered around the stockade. Someone among the boat people in that darkness cried out in misery, and Robert ached for them in their predicament. He thought that at least one was alive to save.
Before the boat ran aground, the men with Patridge let off a ragged volley. Shortly after that the Maryann and the Sampson fired their cannons. The combined blasts deafened Robert, and the bright flash of light left dancing spots in his blinded vision. Then the boat jerked as it slid into land. When his vision cleared, he saw that the chain and grape had hit this side of the Taiping camp turning men into pieces of raw, bloody meat missing arms, legs and sometimes heads.