It’s amazing how deep you can sleep when trying to avoid a quandary.
“Wake up, Robert! I believe you owe me fifty yuan.”
Robert’s eyes opened. It took a moment for him to focus. Then Captain Patridge’s fuzzy face appeared.
“I see that Shao-mei achieved what I intended,” Patridge said.
“What’s this about fifty yuan?” Robert said, struggling to think. “Half of eighty is forty.” He sat up and rubbed his eyes. Somehow, while he slept, Shao-mei, still nude, had moved inside against the bulkhead with her back turned toward him. The curve of her naked back made her more desirable.
She stirred, rolled over and their eyes met. She giggled. Robert smiled and pinched her cheek. “Put your clothes on,” he said. Having her get dressed was for him—not Patridge. Robert couldn’t recall having seen anything so lovely in his life. His fingers tingled to explore.
“But you haven’t made me your concubine,” she said in a whisper, eyeing Captain Patridge over Robert’s shoulder with fear.
“He doesn’t need to know. Once I pay for you, you’re mine.” She was going to be his property. The idea shocked him. The possibilities were endless. Lewd visions flickered across his mind. He blushed. Clearing his throat, he picked up her clothes and thrust them at her. “Get dressed!” His voice sounded scratchy with emotion. His stomach was queasy again. Robert wondered if this would make him happy? He’d made promises. Memories of what happened in the root cellar with Ayaou were still fresh. He turned to Captain Patridge. “How did half of eighty become fifty?”
The captain shrugged. “Can you blame a man for wanting to make a profit?” Robert waited in silence. “All right,” Patridge said. “Forty-five.”
“Forty-two and I don’t have it on me. You will have to accept a note drawn on my account in Hong Kong?”
There had been a moment when Robert considered letting him keep Shao-mei but not now. Robert didn’t want Patridge touching her. He didn’t like the way he was looking at her. There was something filthy about it.
“The note will be sufficient,” Patridge replied.
“Then let’s complete the transaction. I’m sure you have paper and ink.”
Patridge appraised Shao-mei, who was standing beside Robert with her naked back exposed to him while she dressed. The captain’s eyes shifted back to Robert. “You should work for me,” he said. “You know how to bargain. I pay better than the government.”
Robert glanced at Shao-mei, and his breath stuck in his throat. What was taking her so long to dress? Full of hunger, his eyes feasted. He couldn’t stop his beastly thoughts from going where they wanted. “Hurry and get dressed!” He lashed out as if his tongue were a whip. She turned timidly toward him and looked like she was about to burst into tears. He leaned toward her and whispered so Patridge couldn’t hear. “I’m not angry with you, child. I’m angry with myself.” She looked confused. Robert hoped that his Mandarin was understandable—that he hadn’t botched the translation.
“She was that good, huh,” Patridge said. His eyes were glued on her. “We should renegotiate the price.”
“Not a chance, Captain,” Robert replied, stiffness creeping into his voice. “Give me the paper, and I’ll write the note to my bank.”
Patridge looked doubtful. “You know what, Robert, I regret selling her to you. Her sister Lan was stiff as a chopstick.”
“If you’re unhappy with Lan,” Robert said, wanting to save both sisters, “how about selling her to me at a discount? I’ll pay thirty-eight for her. After all, having intercourse with a chopstick can’t be that much fun.” It was difficult keeping the scorn out of his voice.
The captain’s eyebrows lifted, and he studied Robert. “Greedy aren’t you,” he replied. “No, I’ll save Lan as an investment. After I train her, her value will increase.”
“Keep my offer in mind if you have second thoughts.”
“Are you interested in all my concubines?”
“No, just the two.”
Patridge laughed. “I suspect you’ve come out on top on this one, and I mean that literally.”
“You’ve no idea.” He felt his face turn hot. The desire he felt for the girl had to be obvious. It was better that Patridge saw it as lust instead of contempt for the captain’s way of life. Robert had already made an enemy of one man in Unwyn; he didn’t need two hating him.
“Damn, I sold her too cheap,” Patridge said.
“The paper please.”
Patridge went to the desk and pulled out a sheet of paper, a pen and a bottle of ink. “Tell me what it was like.”
“What are you talking about?” Robert replied.
“Did you have a good time? Did you enjoy making love to her?”
“A gentleman doesn’t tell stories,” Robert said, but he didn’t feel like one. He felt like a cad. He remembered how close he had come to taking her virginity like he had already taken Ayaou’s. He wasn’t any better than a thief.
He took the paper and with a shaking hand wrote a note directing his bank in Hong Kong to pay Captain Dan Patridge seven pounds. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that is equal to forty-two yuan.” With the pen poised above the paper, Robert looked up. “My offer for Lan is still good. I can write fourteen pounds as easily as seven.”
“No,” Patridge said. “I’m keeping her.”
Robert wondered if he were trying to be a Don Quixote? He’d read the book in its original Spanish. Had he fallen into the trap Miguel de Cervantes had written about in 1605? Was he chasing windmills trying to save Shao-mei and her younger sister? Was he acting the fool? Was Shao-mei his Dulcinea? Was he that blind? Well, he wasn’t crazy, or at least he hoped not. He didn’t think he was a Don Quixote.
Then Robert remembered something William Lay had said during a conversation in Shanghai a year before. “Robert, my father believed that we Westerners have a great ability for getting and making more things, but we don’t get much enjoyment from them. The Chinese, on the other hand, focus on enjoying the few things they have, and one of those things is women. China is a man-centered universe where the women have one primary purpose—to provide happiness for men in ways we could never imagine.”
William described how Han women had their feet bound as children to please men. It was an agonizing procedure because the bones had to be broken during the process. Some of the girls died from having the growth of their feet stopped. It sounded savage.
Robert glanced at Shao-mei. He stared at her normal sized feet. He hadn’t noticed before. Seeing them like that helped boost his mood. In fact, she had graceful feet. He was glad she hadn’t suffered from the pain of foot binding. Then he looked at her face and was reminded how lovely she was. He didn’t like what he was starting to think. It bothered him that his flesh was so weak. He forced his eyes back to the paper. He blew it dry and handed it to Patridge. They shook hands to seal the bargain. Robert decided that he would do what was right for Shao-mei and save Ayaou if a chance presented itself. He’d not give up easily. Not like Quixote had. Besides, Don Quixote would have been lost in China. The dragons here were friendly.
“All right, let’s complete our business,” Patridge said. A look of lust and envy appeared in his eyes. He glanced at the bunk bed where Robert and Shao-mei had slept. Robert felt his face twisting itself into a mask of disgust, which he struggled to control. He wanted to tell Patridge to keep his eyes off her.
“I came to get you so you could join me. Tonight Frederick Ward is having a dinner and a strategy session at his house with the officers of his army. Tomorrow he’ll march out of the city to take back Sungkiang from the rebels. If he pulls this off, he will be in favor with the Imperial court in Peking. I want to take advantage of this moment to start a business relationship with the rascal.”
“I understand.” Robert reached for his boots. Shao-mei, who was now dressed, knelt and slipped them onto his feet. Although she was putting his boots on him, her eyes were fastened on his face as if he were a book that she wanted to read.
Having her dressed didn’t help him. Her outfit was so skimpy and sexy, that he was mad with desire to get her clothes back off and run his tongue over her naked body. His expression must have given his thoughts away, because she looked startled and quickly finished lacing the boots with fumbling fingers. Forgive me, Lord, Robert thought. He was like a starving beast trapped with a spicy meal that he dare not touch. Robert stood and allowed her to finish dressing him.
It occurred to him that if he had dinner at Ward’s house, he might see Ayaou again. He found five yuan in his pocket and gave it to Shao-mei. “Buy something else to wear that covers better and keep any money you have left for emergencies.”
Remembering that Patridge was still there, Robert decided to stage a show. He leaned forward and kissed Shao-mei on the mouth. He made sure it was a long kiss, and he couldn’t resist slipping his tongue between her sweet lips. She stiffened, and her body twisted to the side like a chicken on a market scale being weighed with its wings and feet tied together. He steadied her by putting both hands on her hips, but touching her aroused him again.
Captain Patridge burst out laughing. “Now I know I was cheated.”