Parkes puffed away while continuing to talk. Without warning, he stopped talking in the middle of a sentence. The muscles in his face relaxed. His eyes were still open but looked vacant. The cigar fell from his lips to the table.
One of the others took the cigar and snuffed the ember before placing it in an empty bowl. Parkes’s head slump forward until his chin rested on his chest. He had fallen asleep.
“It’s okay to go, Hart,” Lockwood said. “He won’t expect you to stay. He will be awake and working at midnight. We can be sure of that. However, he doesn’t expect any of us to keep the same hours.”
* * *
Robert reached his room before midnight ready to sleep but discovered a breeze blowing into the room because of the missing pane of glass. The room felt like a locker filled with blocks of ice.
He would have to get that window fixed. He had one wool blanket. It didn’t take long to discover one blanket wasn’t enough. He would have piled clothing on top of the blanket, but the rest of his clothing might not arrive for days. He didn’t bother to undress when he covered himself with the blanket. His nose and toes felt frozen. He listened to the sentries and struggled to get warm by curling into a ball.
A sentry yelled. “Who goes there?”
“A friend.” Came the reply.
“Advance, friend, and give the parole,” the sentry said.
“England.” Came the reply.
“Pass, friend, and all’s well.”
Since Robert couldn’t sleep, he thought about Ayaou. He missed her and sleeping without her didn’t feel right. He started to shiver. He worried that he might freeze and never see Ayaou again.
* * *
That night a British sailor was murdered and his body found on the beach the next morning. Everyone was talking about it when Robert arrived at the officers’ mess for breakfast.
Parkes was a hurricane of activity. He seemed to have a second sense for trouble. They were always rushing from one place to another. It was impossible for Robert to find time to search for a house.
Parkes praised him every time he soothed ruffled Chinese sensibilities. That didn’t help Robert’s frustration. He wanted to find a house and send for Ayaou and Guan-jiah. He wanted his adopted family back. He wanted to be warm again. He did manage to find two more blankets although they didn’t help much.
When he brought up the subject about a house, Parkes said, “No, you will be safer with the British officers. I’ve had other hot-blooded, young men want to live in the city where they are free to keep the company of local women, but with the danger from the rebels and the imperials, I won’t hear of it.”
How could he tell Parkes that he wanted to send for his Chinese concubine? After all, Parkes wasn’t impressed with the Chinese people and their culture. He had seen Parkes act arrogant and almost obnoxious in front of the Chinese. Parkes and others like him created new challenges to solve on a daily basis from their transparent attitudes and blunt behavior.
* * *
They were riding to a meeting with another Chinese official when they saw several lovely Chinese women. Because one looked like Ayaou, he stared.
Parkes made a thumb down gesture. “I saw you admiring that lady,” he said. “There is nothing to see, Robert. Their bodies are childlike and their breasts too small. How could an Englishman want such a woman in his bed? It would be like having intercourse with a child.”
He worried about what Parkes would think if he knew those characteristics were precisely what excited him. He couldn’t stand large breasts, big bottoms and thick thighs. Ayaou was exactly what he wanted. At the same time, he didn’t want to ruin his future by speaking out.
* * *
Robert’s main job, besides helping Parkes keep a delicate balance in the city and the surrounding countryside, was to work as interpreter for the Anglo-French commission. The commission’s job was to assist the Chinese governor in maintaining order and to take notice of legal cases in which foreigners were concerned. The commission consisted of Colonel Thomas Holloway, Captain F. Martineau des Chavez, and Parkes.
* * *
On Tuesday, Robert left the protection of Canton with Parkes and six armed men. As they rode through one of the city gates into the countryside, Parkes said, “This is the northeast gate where Captain Bate was killed reconnoitering the walls after the capture of Lin’s Fort. A bloody mess.”
Bate had died when a combined allied military force of British and French soldiers took the city from the Imperial Chinese army. Hostilities had not ceased. The rebels and elements of the imperial army continued to resist and make life difficult for foreigners. Canton was a dangerous place. It was worse outside the city’s walls.
* * *
He wrote a letter to Ayaou and sent money. In the note, he told her to have Guan-jiah pack and purchase passage for Canton. Robert could not wait to be reunited. His loneliness had overcome him. He hoped he wasn’t making a mistake.
A few days later, Robert questioned why he’d done that. He’d been selfish. He knew the answer—there was a deep, dull ache inside that wouldn’t go away. Only Ayaou could dispel that ache.
Once they arrived, he would have Ayaou and Guan-jiah find a house close to his military quarters. He’d slip out in the night and spend a few hours with her before returning to the cold, unfriendly bed at the commission. That broken window had not been fixed.
* * *
One Friday afternoon, Robert left the city with Captain Pym, the commander of a hundred-man police force armed with swords and revolvers. They rode to a place outside the city walls where spies said rebels were hiding concealed weapons.
When the hundred-man column arrived at the house, there were no people in the street. It was almost as if they had been expected. Robert felt exposed. Had they ridden into a trap? He hoped he would survive to spend another night with Ayaou.
“I don’t like this,” Pym said. He turned the horses over to a few men and put his back against a wall to study the rooftops. Everyone looked nervous. That didn’t help how Robert felt. Pym ordered some men to get on the roofs and keep watch. He directed most of his force to fan out and set up a perimeter. They quickly searched and secured the empty houses on both sides of the street.
“We’re spread too thin,” Robert said.
“I agree,” Pym replied. “We should have come with twice as many men. I don’t like this.”
Robert felt as if hidden eyes were watching but every time he looked, nobody was there. He hoped the others would not see his nervousness.
The house they’d come to inspect was locked. After Pym’s men broke in, they searched and found no weapons. They shoved furniture aside, broke table legs with their roughness and pounded on tiles, cracking some, looking for hollow spaces below the floor.
Once the search was finished, Robert followed Pym outside.
The captain spread his legs wide and put his hands on his hips. He stared at the rooftops where his men were on guard. “It makes my back crawl,” he said. “If the cowards are going to attack, I wished they’d get it over with. I hate this waiting.”
Robert knew exactly how he felt. It was a relief to return to the city. Later, they discovered the street had been abandoned for weeks.
Links to Reviews for "Our Hart"
Honorable Mentions in General Fiction