Had Robert heard Patridge right when the captain said they were on their way to see the Son of Heaven?
“Before we go to Ward’s,” Patridge said, “you will meet this man. He is looking for a first-class interpreter.”
Didn’t they call the Emperor of China the Son of Heaven? Robert thought. “I’m not exactly fluent,” he said. “Who am I to talk to the Son of Heaven? Even Sir John Bowring, the governor of Hong Kong, hasn’t met him yet.”
“You’re not listening, Robert. It’s not the Son of Heaven. It’s Prince Kung, the brother of the Emperor, the true manager of the Imperial court. He has come from Peking to deal with the problems caused by the foreign powers. He wants someone that knows several languages fluently to interpret for him. We are on our way to a house near the waterfront.”
"That doesn't tell me about the location," Robert said. "Where exactly is this house we are going to?"
"It is in the walled section of the Chinese City where he’s interviewing people for the position.”
Robert wasn’t happy that Captain Patridge had arranged this audience with Prince Kung without warning him. “How did you manage it?” he stammered.
“I asked the governor of Shanghai, Robert,” Patridge replied, “When you see the prince, don’t be shocked. He looks young. Do you know how old the Emperor is?”
“No, but I suspect he’s an old man with a long white beard.”
“Wrong. The Emperor is twenty-four.” Robert couldn’t help thinking of Guan-jiah and how young he was. Could the Emperor of China and his servant, who recited Confucius philosophy, be so close in age?
When they reached the house, Robert was ushered into Prince Kung’s office and guided to a chair. The ink strokes of a Chinese calligraphy hanging on the wall were thick like the trunk of an old dead tree. The massive rosewood desk had intricately carved legs that looked like dragons. The dragon tails touched the floor and the heads supported the thick slab top. The serpents’ eyes stared at Robert as if he were something to eat. A huge ceramic pot sat in a corner with a thick clot of yellowing bamboo growing from it.
A servant brought tea. The prince was slim with a pair of penetrating eyes and a scrawny mustache. His head was shaved bald except for his queue, a strand of braided hair that fell from the back of his skull to his waist. He wore a gold-laced robe embroidered with stars and blue-green ocean waves. Long strands of beads made of jewels and jade and other colorful ornaments hung from his neck. He was dressed like an emperor, but he looked so young—almost like a boy. Guan-jiah looked older.
After tea, Prince Kung leaned forward and stared into Robert’s eyes. “Do you know the difference between the verses of the Tang Dynasty and Sung Dynasty and the style of ruling between Han-ti, the Emperor of the Han Dynasty and Nurhachi, his ancestor, the founding Emperor of the Ch’ing Dynasty?”
Robert fumbled for answers—his Chinese pronunciations clumsy. The room felt small. The blood color of the walls was dark and menacing. It was like the walls were a vise closing on him. This was more difficult than a simple conversation in the vegetable market. It took an effort for him not to bolt from the chair and run from the house.
After a few more questions were tossed at Robert like rocks that he couldn’t catch, Prince Kung turned to Captain Patridge. “This one does not grasp the complexities of Mandarin or Chinese history enough to serve us. We want someone who understands how the Chinese think and is capable of explaining that to the representatives of the foreign powers. If he is the best you can bring us, you are not useful.” A bored expression clouded the prince’s face. They had been dismissed.
Outside, Robert said, “Why in blazes did you arrange that meeting?” He was fuming with anger. He hated being embarrassed.
“Don’t let it worry you,” Patridge replied. “The Prince has seen you. That’s what’s important. In China, introductions like this turn priceless later. One day, maybe years from now, he’ll remember this meeting and see the growth of your knowledge and skills.” The captain put a hand on Robert’s arm in a conciliatory gesture. “Look, Robert, I didn’t do this to hurt or embarrass you. Believe me when I say that I did this with your future in mind.”
With an effort, Robert suppressed his temper. “I don’t see how. That prince looked like he was still a youth.”
“He’s older,” Patridge replied. “The Chinese don’t show their age as we do. He’s twenty-two.”
Robert was now motivated to learn the Chinese language. He didn’t want to be embarrassed again. He wondered what he could do to learn how the Chinese think? For that to happen, he’d have to live in a Chinese house with Chinese people. He did have Shao-mei. Maybe living with her would help.
* * * *
The dinner at Ward’s was a repeat of the victory celebration over the Taipings. It was lavish and grand to show off the man’s wealth and power. Robert resolved that if he were in a similar position, his parties would be sedate with people in conversations about art, literature and politics. Men like Ward would never be invited.
Robert sat on one side of Ward while Patridge sat on his other side of the long table. He wanted to be as far from Ward as possible. The room was oppressive with its low, open timbered, and smoke stained ceiling. The only person between Ward and Robert was one of the mercenary's concubines. Another concubine sat between Ward and Patridge.
Ward tossed down another glass of brandy. Robert doubted he tasted it. Ward was sweating profusely. His body gave off a rancid odor like spoiled milk. “So, Patridge,” Ward said in his loud, obnoxious voice, “are you going to join me on my way to victory at Sungkiang? Here’s a chance to make a name on the battlefield.”
“Unfortunately, I can’t,” Captain Patridge replied. He lifted his glass of wine and held it out. “I have business to attend to, but I’ll drink to your success.”
Ward waved a finger at one of the concubines. She stepped forward to pour more brandy into his glass. He lifted the glass and clinked it against Patridge’s. Some of the brandy and wine slopped onto the table. “To gold and silver and the women it buys,” he said, and Patridge echoed him. Ward drank half the glass in one gulp.
“What about you, Hart?” Ward said, slurring his words. “Unwynsaid you fight like a gladiator. He said you took on a dozen Taipings.”
“He flatters me,” Robert replied. “I had help.”
Ward laughed. “That’s not the way I heard it.”
“I understand you bought a new concubine last night named Ayaou,” Robert said, shocked at his boldness. He had to be careful. He had said that without thinking first.
“That bitch.” Ward jerked his jaw to the side signaling for his glass to be refilled. A concubine leaped to obey.
“She wasn’t to your liking?” Robert asked. He hid his trembling hands under the table and kept them on his lap.
“I bought her when she was dirty with her cycle, but she paid for it. I showed her who the master was.” Ward lifted the glass to his mouth and spilled half of its contents down his bare chest before he slammed it back on the table. “When this battle is won, she is one virgin I’m going to enjoy. She’s too damn delicious! I love breaking a bitch that’s never been ridden.”
Robert clenched his hands into fists. He had always prided himself at controlling his temper. This was a test he wasn’t sure he could win. “Her music was lovely,” he said, choosing his words to lure Ward in while keeping the tone of his voice calm. “Do we hear some tonight? What do you say, Captain Patridge?”
“That would be pleasant,” Patridge echoed. He watched Robert with narrow eyes.
He’s wondering what I’m up to, Robert thought. Why should he care? Then he remembered confiding his feelings for Ayaou with Patridge. That had been a mistake. He shouldn’t have told Patridge anything, because the captain might reveal what Robert really wanted. A shaky anxiety invaded his stomach, and he lost any appetite he had. He felt like this in Belfast when his sister Mary came to warn him that the entire family knew he was ruining his life with liquor and women. It bothered Robert that because of his big mouth, he could lose any chance to get Ayaou. Then he had doubts. He considered walking away. After all, he did have Shao-mei. He wouldn’t be alone any longer. She was a sweet girl, and she was willing. With Shao-mei there were no complications like Ward, who was clearly crazy and not the type to be mixed up with.
“Ayaou,” Ward bellowed, “bring that damned Chinese stringed piano out here and play for my guests.”
She glided through the door that led to the kitchen. Robert wanted to look at her. With an effort he denied the desire. He blushed when he remembered the root cellar where he had made love to Ayaou for her first time. He realized that he could not stop now. He had to have her. He knew it would take every bit of cunning he could muster for a chance at success. He stared at the tabletop afraid that Ward might notice the look of anxiety on his face. He couldn’t allow anything to give away how he felt and worried about Patridge doing just that.
Ayaou came to stand behind Ward. She glared at the painted concubine next to Ward. She did not look at Robert. He knew that this was probably best, but he had hoped for a smile.
“Move,” Ward ordered. He didn’t say who should move
Robert brought one of his hands out from beneath the table and picked up the wineglass. He needed a drink. Food was put in front of him, but he had no appetite. He paid no attention to what it was though he hadn’t eaten all day. Another platter loaded with beef and pork was put on the table. The guests speared pieces for their plates. Robert sipped wine.
“Didn’t you hear me?” Ward yelled. He used the back of his arm to sweep the painted concubine out of her seat. She lost her balance, fell over and cracked her head against the wall. She doubled over in silence and didn’t move for a moment. Then she stood and stumbled from the room. At the door, she hesitated and glanced at Ward with a look that reminded Robert of a puppy that lavished attention on its abusive master. He saw tears on her face, but she wasn’t sobbing. Looking as if she had been abandoned, she left the room.
Robert now understood why Patridge did not like this man. He decided that he didn’t like him either. Ward was a disgusting creature. Robert also realized this was a dangerous man to dislike.
Ayaou slipped into the vacated chair. She placed the pipa next to her face and started to play. There was a bruise on her forehead. Seeing it brought Robert’s blood to a boil. The bastard, he thought. Robert struggled to stay seated and not smash in the man’s smug expression. It would be stupid to lose control.
Instead, Robert diverted his anger into the wineglass. He squeezed it so hard it shattered. He cut himself in the process. A servant cleaned up the mess. Robert wrapped his hand with a cloth napkin to stop the bleeding. The pain helped subdue his anger. He decided to do something risky and dangerous. If it didn’t work, it might cost his life.
Ayaou finished the first song and started another. Robert leaned forward and placed his good hand on her arm to stop her. “General Ward,” he asked, “is that invitation to join you in the attack on Sungkiang still good?”
“Of course,” Ward replied. “I can use every white man possible. These Orientals can’t think. They botch every battle they get into. It is the primary reason the Taipings have been winning the war. I am going to change that.”
“I want to join you but on one condition.”
“What’s that?” Ward swayed in his seat struggling to overcome the alcoholic fog clouding his reason and vision.
“I’m still mastering Mandarin,” Robert said. “This trip to Shanghai has interrupted my studies.”
“Why is this important?” Ward slurred his words. He took another swallow of liquor. His forehead and upper lip were beaded with sweat.
“My career depends on it.”
“Bring your teacher.”
“He’s not available.”
“Come on,” Ward said. “Anyone who speaks Chinese will do.”
“Anyone? Like whom?”
“Like one of my concubines,” Ward said. “I’m sure any of them can speak the damned language with you.”
“How about Ayaou?”
“That’s possible, but why her?”
“I know her father, Chou Luk. I know her family.” Robert didn’t say what he thought—that she was supposed be his woman, not Ward’s.
Ward took a long look at Robert, who worried that the American soldier of fortune would guess the truth. Ward turned to Captain Patridge. “Is Hart after his lesson, or should I suspect he’s after my virgin?”
“Oh, he’s after his lesson,” Patridge lied. “The British government pays him to learn Chinese. He isn’t interested in your concubine. Why should he be? He has his pick of them at my summerhouse.”
Patridge wasn’t watching Ward. He was looking at Robert. His eyes said that Robert owed him, which made Robert uncomfortable. Maybe Ayaou had been right. Maybe Patridge was in it for the money. This confused Robert. How could he benefit this man financially? Patridge was a man who liked telling exaggerated stories and doling out concubines as bed warmers. Who was Robert to question Patridge’s motives? After all, Robert had accepted Willow. He had no right to judge Patridge or be suspicious of him.
“All right,” Ward said. He turned to Ayaou. “Get ready. Do a good job teaching Hart his Chinese. If you don’t, I’ll give you a twin to that bruise you already earned.”