The weather conspired with Ward to make life miserable for Robert and Ayaou. The winter of 1858 was the coldest he experienced since arriving in China.
Guan-jiah, his Chinese servant, insisted on doing the shopping so Ayaou stayed inside the house alone most of the time. Each day Guan-jiah brought in frost bitten cabbages that were withered and looked rotten. The potatoes were loaded with ice crystals and tasted like pork liver.
Robert was in a surly mood. People went out of their way to avoid him. He felt that as long as Ward lived, his mood would not improve. He spent hours concocting far-fetched schemes on how he was going to exact revenge for Shao-mei’s death. He was improving at hiding his pain. The others at the consulate didn’t notice his suffering. Replacing the pain with anger made him feel like a thief and a liar.
* * * *
Robert bought another revolver and taught Guan-jiah to shoot. He took the eunuch into the countryside daily. For her protection, Ayaou visited boat people she had known all her life.
They found a place to practice without witnesses. There, away from the city, among the trees and rice paddies, his servant learned to shoot. It wasn’t easy.
Guan-jiah’s hands shook. When he squeezed the trigger, he closed his eyes and jumped at the sound of the boom. “I’m going deaf, Master,” he said.
“Then take cotton and plug your ears,” he replied.
“What about my eyes, Master? How do I keep them open?”
“We’ll work on it. If you learn, I’ll add five yuan a month to your pay.” He stood behind his servant and reached around him. He put his hands over Guan-jiah’s to steady the shaking. “Put your index finger on the trigger and squeeze,” he said. “Do not jerk the trigger, or you will miss the target.”
Since Robert stood behind Guan-jiah, he couldn’t help but observe the eunuch’s shaved skull. A tail of hair called a queue grew out of the back of the eunuch’s head and hung halfway down his back. He was a bony, short man with a turned-up nose and eyes set far apart. He had long ear lobes, which he was proud of because they resembled the ear lobes on the Buddha. The Chinese believed this was a sign that a person was born to be kind-natured. He thought this belief had influenced his servant to take on the burden of feeding his family.
After helping Guan-jiah fire his first five shots, Robert stepped back to observe. He was aware of his servant’s graceful, feminine posture and movements. Since Guan-jiah had voluntarily castrated himself at a young age to apply for a job inside the Forbidden City, he was no longer a man. He was a lao gong, a eunuch. If he grew his hair long so his ears were hidden and dressed like a woman, he could easily pass for one. He was sure that men would find Guan-jiah attractive as a woman. As it was, he looked homely in his drab colored, baggy peasant clothing.
It was a tragic blow when Guan-jiah did not get the first job he applied for as a tai jian, a court or palace eunuch. Robert realized his servant wasn’t alone. He’d heard that as many as fifty thousand boys castrated themselves each year to be eligible to apply for the few positions available in the Emperor’s palace. Many that were not accepted killed themselves.
Guan-jiah, on the other hand, decided to struggle on. Eventually, he learned enough English to get a job working for the British consulate as a servant. Robert had met his family. He respected Guan-jiah for the burden he had taken to feed his siblings, his parents, his grandparents, his uncles and aunts, and cousins.
It took days to get Guan-jiah to keep his eyes open and calm enough to hit the target. The target was only twenty yards from Guan-jiah, but it might as well have been a mile. In time, the eunuch learned and hit the target on average four out of every six shots. They went through two hundred rounds before Robert was satisfied.
* * * *
Robert suspected he was being followed. When he turned to catch the person, the phantom melted like fog. He questioned his sanity. He suspected he was imagining things—that Shao-mei’s death had made him paranoid. It was driving him crazy. On the other hand, he felt that he couldn’t take the chance he was wrong.
On his way home, he confronted a man that looked like a Japanese sailor. The man had been walking behind him for three blocks by the time Robert decided to confront him.
He turned and pointed a finger at the sailor’s face. “Why are you following me?” he asked. “Trying to discover where I live, huh?” Robert’s other hand was in his jacket pocket holding the Colt revolver. He was ready to pull the trigger. The man was taller than he was, but Robert’s intensity and anger caused the man to step back. The sailor looked around at the Chinese on the street as if he were seeking help against a lunatic.
None of the Chinese paid the slightest attention to this dramatic scene in their midst. Robert knew why—what happened between foreigners or strangers was none of their business. Why should they care if two barbarians killed each other?
“Leave me alone,” the sailor said. He took another step back.
Robert pursued him. “You have been spying on me. Admit it.”
The sailor ran. Although Robert felt satisfaction at chasing the man off, he worried that next time the spy would be sneakier and harder to detect. At least, he had proved he was ready if something unexpected happened.
* * * *
One morning when he opened the front door, it resisted as if the hinge pins had swollen. He examined the door and discovered scratches and dents on the outside surface as if someone had been attempting to force the door with a metal pry bar.
He held his breath—shocked. Without thinking, his right hand slipped into the jacket pocket where he kept his revolver. He stared at every face in the street and looked at the rooftops expecting to see someone watching. A wave of dizziness swept over him. He had to lean against the wall to maintain his balance.
He wanted to yell, I’m here, you bastards—come and get me. His house had been violated. The woman he loved had been threatened. He felt helpless, useless.
“Master, what is wrong?” It was Guan-jiah. Since the attempt to hijack Robert into a British warship months earlier, before Shao-mei had been murdered, the eunuch arrived in the morning and accompanied him to the consulate. He came with a sturdy walking stick—a gnarly, knobby thing that doubled as a bludgeon.
He pointed at the door hinges. “They came to get her.” He stammered and continued to babble as the eunuch guided him inside. The servant then went back out. Robert sat on the nearest stool. He pulled the Colt out of his pocket and stared at it. When Guan-jiah returned, the eunuch slipped the bar into its brackets securing the door.
“Master,” Guan-jiah said. “Why do you want that thing? It’s dangerous.” He took the revolver out of Robert’s hand and put the weapon on a small table next to the door.
“I have to be ready.”
“It was only a thief, Master. Do you think the men that murdered Shao-mei and her child would have given up because they couldn’t force their way into the house if they knew you were inside?”
Robert shrugged. “What am I going to do? I feel helpless. I couldn’t protect Shao-mei. She’s dead because of me. How can I protect Ayaou?”
“Master, I will hire a craftsman to repair the door. The man will make it stronger. I’ll see to that.” Guan-jiah knelt and looked into Robert’s eyes. “What happened is something to feel pleased about. The door held. You and Ayaou are safe. Your efforts to protect your concubine worked.”
“That’s true ,” he replied. He straightened up. “Make sure the new hinge pins are twice as strong as the ruined ones. The thieves will come better prepared next time. We must be ready. This house must be strong enough to withstand an army.”
“Do not worry, Master. When the workers are finished, the hinge pins in this door will be the sturdiest in Ningpo.”
Links to Reviews for "Our Hart"
Honorable Mention in General Fiction