On his third day in Hong Kong, an ensign came to Robert’s room in the consulate with a summons from the captain of the Forrester, a British gunboat.
“We’re sailing immediately, sir,” the ensign said. “The captain sent me to fetch you. We have to hurry.”
He hadn’t expected to leave on such short notice and didn’t have time to wait for his luggage. It had to be left behind to be shipped by chop, a licensed cargo boat for transporting goods between local ports.
Fog rolled in and it rained most of the trip destroying his chance to see the countryside along the river. Canton was eighty miles inland along the Pearl River, the third longest in China after the Yangtze and the Yellow.
Arriving off Canton, the Forrester drifted to its anchorage passing one of the floating sampan villages dotting the wide river. The different sized sampans had been tied together to form a dingy, ramshackle village of houseboats with rounded, turtle like tops. Small children were fastened to ropes to keep them from falling into the river. A rooster stood on top of one houseboat and preened its rusty colored feathers. Chickens walked about the decks pecking at whatever was edible.
These were boat people. Ayaou and Shao-mei had come from this culture. Robert remembered asking Tee Lee Ping about them.
Ping had replied, "A myth explains it. Several thousand years ago, a clan of Chinese boat people wronged the emperor. Because of this, they were banned forever from owning land or living on it. Many boat people are born and die on their boats without ever walking on land."
Seeing the sampan village reminded Robert of Ayaou. He was overwhelmed with emotion and missed her horribly as if a vital part of his body had been left behind. They had been together three years without a separation.
He discovered that Canton was filled with British and French troops. The city was an armed camp. James Bruce, the Eighth Earl of Elgin and the Twelfth Earl of Kincardine, was the British High Commissioner. At one time, Bruce had been the Governor General of Canada and the Viceroy of India.
But the man responsible for Canton, with its population of a million, was Harry Parkes, who was part of the three man allied commission appointed to govern the city due to hostilities with local rebels and an element of the imperial government led by Chinese Commissioner Yeh.
The Chinese Commissioner had put a thirty-dollar bounty on the head of each Englishmen. Robert had heard that Yeh was a stubborn man, loyal to Peking and the imperial government.
He was quartered with army officers in a large building converted into a military barracks. The building was in a part of the city taken over by British and French forces.
The small room was on the second floor. It was about the size of a closet with a narrow bunk and dresser. The one window had a glass pane missing. Outside air leaked through the hole. There was no closet. After washing his face and hands, he left for his first meeting with Commissioner Parkes.
The headquarters building was close and didn’t take long to reach. When he entered Parkes’s office, the commissioner was seated behind a massive teak desk.
Parkes came around the desk and shook Robert’s hand. “Great to meet you, Hart,” Parkes said with a voice that promised unlimited energy. Parkes was a man of middle height, olive fair complexion, light-yellow hair and soft, sandy whiskers.
Robert handed Parkes a letter. “From your wife, sir,” he said.
Parkes put the letter on his desk without opening it. “I miss her. It’s unfortunate that she must live in Hong Kong until we make things safer. It’s too dangerous for our wives here.”
Hearing this caused Robert to question if it were wise to have Ayaou join him. However, she wasn’t foreign and she wasn’t his wife.
“I’ve heard you can read their minds,” Parkes said, “and know what a Chinese man is thinking before he opens his mouth. I speak Chinese, but I seem to put my foot in my mouth every time I deal with these buggers. I’m counting on you to do the talking and help get this mess in the South straightened out.”
“I’m flattered, commissioner,” he replied, “but it isn’t true . I don’t read minds. I just listen to learn how the Chinese think.”
“Capital,” Parkes said. “It’s a rare man who knows when to shut up and listen. I’m not one. Have you heard the rumor that I’m not an easy man to work for? I’m sure you have.”
“I haven’t been here long enough to hear anything, and I don’t take rumors seriously. I never have. I let actions and facts speak for themselves, not words.”
“Well, I don’t agree with that rumor,” Parkes said. “I demand that my people do their jobs. That sometimes means going without sleep and working long hours. It also means taking risks.”
Parkes slapped Robert on the back and guided him toward the door. “Before you settle into your quarters, I have a job for you. I need an interpreter who knows how to change my words so the Chinese aren’t insulted. I will also get a chance to see if what they say about you is true . Since I speak Chinese, I’ll know what you’re saying and may learn something.”
A mounted squad of military police waited outside the building. Parkes swung into his saddle and indicated another horse. “Mount up, Hart.”
“What do you want me to do?” he asked, not wanting to rush into something he knew nothing about.
Everyone was mounted and the column started to move.
“I can see you are the cautious type,” Parkes replied. His horse tossed its head and pranced about. “We’ll talk on the move.” Parkes left.
Robert mounted and had to hurry to catch the squad. The clatter of the horses warned the Chinese to move out of the way. The streets emptied as if by magic.
“A new Chinese Viceroy, Huang Tsung-han, is expected in Canton soon,” Parkes said. “The problem is that the current Viceroy wants to leave the city to greet him before he gets here and that won’t do. What do you suggest?”
Robert thought fast. “Commissioner, if he doesn’t go, the Imperials in Peking will accuse him of a lack of courtesy. The emperor is like a god. If he commands, the Chinese obey. The first of Confucius’s Five Great Relationships is between ruler and subject and the emperor is the viceroy’s master.”
“Stupid cultural habits,” Parkes said. Robert stared. He didn’t know how to respond. “Well, that can’t be all you have to say. Spit it out.”
“The viceroy will lose face if he doesn’t do what he’s told. The emperor will see it as an insult. Violating the first relationship demonstrates a lack of loyalty. He might have to kill himself or lose his head to make up for it.”
“And how are you going to get around that obstacle?” Parkes asked.
“Allow me to use this time while we are on our way to the Viceroy to think of what to say.” He was frantic to get the message across. He hated the thought that a man might die because of Parkes’s ignorance.
Parkes stared at Robert under lowered eyebrows that looked more like storm clouds, before he said, “Yes, I understand. Good. Also, my dear chap, you should know he isn’t expecting us. This is a surprise visit. I was afraid if he knew we were coming, he’d leave earlier than planned.”
Robert was about to say the Chinese didn’t like surprises. Then the squad made a sharp turn in to a wider avenue with more people crowding it. Before he could say a word, the squad of armed military police increased the pace to a gallop. Parkes’s mount shot forward in a burst of speed leaving Robert behind. The Chinese people scattered like chickens chased by a fox. It was a challenge to keep up. He didn’t ride horses often.
When the column reached the Viceroy’s house, Parkes gave orders. The military police spread out setting up a cordon around the building.
“Come on, Hart. I need you. Remember, you don’t have to say exactly what I tell you. Just get what I mean across in a way that will not insult the man. I don’t want another crisis.”
Two flustered servants ushered Parkes and Robert into the viceroy's presence as he was slipping into his ceremonial robes. “Hello, dear chap,” Parkes said.
Robert interpreted it into something more honorable than ‘dear chap’.
“Tell him we’ve heard he’s anxious to go meet the new viceroy that’s replacing him. I understand it’s his duty to do so, but we really don’t want him to leave Canton. If he leaves, there are those who sympathize with the Taipings that want to cause riots. If he stays, there won’t be riots.”
Parkes not only spoke fast, but he gestured with his arms and hands to emphasize his words. He looked like a windmill. “We also understand that he’ll lose face if he doesn’t meet the new Viceroy. We are going to solve that problem by keeping him here under guard. That way he can blame everything on me and tell his superiors I prevented him from fulfilling his duty.”
It was Robert’s first challenge in Canton. He was sure there would be others. He enjoyed the moment as he changed what Parkes wanted him to say into Chinese so the viceroy would not feel insulted.
He planned to bribe the man but not make it look like a bribe. The minute he saw the viceroy, he guessed his weakness. The viceroy was fat. There weren’t many fat Chinese. Knowing how much the Chinese loved food, Robert felt confident of a solution. The Chinese accepted food as they accepted sex. This man looked like he enjoyed food more than the average Chinese did.
First, Robert introduced himself and nodded. Then he started a conversation. “I have become addicted to eating crabs,” he said. “How do you feel about crabs?”________________________________________
Links to Reviews for "Our Hart"
Honorable Mentions in General Fiction