It rained for two weeks. His quarters were damp, both at the commission and at the house where he spent his nights with Ayaou. Guan-jiah used boiled water with a vinegar-garlic solution to scrape the floors and wash the clothing. Robert didn’t know what was worse, the house smell or the lice and rats.
The evening meal was always the same: a variety of beans, coarse bread, spinach and peas. “What happened to pork and beef?” he asked. “Is food so scarce that you can only find this?”
“No, Robert,” Ayaou replied. “With this food, the lice won’t like the way you taste. They will stay away.”
He stared at the half-empty plate, sighed and continued eating. He was getting tired of the same food every night. He wasn’t going to argue. It wasn’t worth it. Besides, maybe she was right.
Guan-jiah scoured the city and found sleeping mats that were lice free. The traps he set out and bated with a peanut paste caught scores of rats and mice. Before the month’s end, the rats and lice had been killed or moved.
* * *
“Guan-jiah,” he asked, “what’s wrong with your hands?” His servant's hands looked bright red and raw. Scabs were forming.
Guan-jiah hid his hands behind his back. “Nothing, Master.”
“I told him not to keep the lice killing solution so hot,” Ayaou said. “I thought he was going to cook his hands.”
Ayaou had changed. Robert didn’t know what to make of it. She had started to do little things for him that Shao-mei had done when she was alive. One thing that Ayaou did was to sew a bag for his ink stone to replace the one she had destroyed during an argument with Shao-mei. It was an exact duplicate. He didn’t tell her it brought back the memories, the grief.
“Let me see your hands.” Guan-jiah stuck them out. “We have to do something,” Robert said. “I’ll see if I can find an ointment.”
That night Ayaou insisted they read together as they used to do with Shao-mei. Ayaou only wanted to read the poems that Shao-mei loved. He should have seen these changes in her behavior as warning signs, but the grief he was struggling to hide and the events taking place in and around the city were conspiring to keep him from seeing what was going on in the mind of his lover.
As usual, early the next morning, Robert stumbled back to his quarters in the barracks. With blurry vision, he struggled to stay awake through the day so he could do his job.
* * *
Around sunrise on May 30, shortly after he slipped back into his quarters at the commission, a large band of armed Chinese rebels attacked two policemen on duty at the city’s southwest gate. One of the policemen was cut in several places on the head but managed to escape. The left hand of the other policeman was almost severed from his arm.
“I heard that a Chinese shopkeeper saved the second policeman by leading him across roofs and over the city wall,” a British infantry lieutenant told Robert. The lieutenant billeted next to his room.
* * *
That same evening, instead of going to Ayaou, he rode with Captain Pym and his police through the western suburbs. A spy of Pym’s had informed him that rebels, known as the Canton Braves, were planning another raid similar to the one against the southwest gate. The troop rode for hours through the streets and outside the city walls as a show of force. It must have worked. There were no large assaults against the city.
He didn’t reach Ayaou until well after midnight. She answered the door when he knocked and threw herself in his arms. “I was afraid something happened to you, Robert,” she said. She was trembling. “We heard the sound of shooting.” When he tilted her head back to see her face, there were worry lines growing around her eyes.
“You can’t be sitting here for hours like this,” he said. “You will get sick.” He’d been blind these last few weeks. She was losing weight. “You aren’t eating,” he said.
“How can I eat? You could be killed.”
That night the lovemaking was frantic as if it might be their last time.
* * *
On July 3, an hour before noon, a band of Taiping rebels attacked four French sailors who shouldn’t have been outside the city walls. Three of the sailors escaped. Pym’s police found the headless body of the fourth sailor in a stream. They never found the head.
“The French commander must make sure his troops do as they are told.” Parkes face was swollen and his eyes red as he walked back and forth from one side of his office to the other. Robert and several officers stood in silence listening to his anger.
Parkes’s lips curled into a sneer and twitched. “Orders were posted that all troops were to stay inside their compounds. It isn’t safe for foreigners to be wandering around alone. It also isn’t safe for the Chinese that are too friendly with us.” He stopped and slammed a fist into a palm. “There must be no exceptions! Any soldiers that disobey must spend time in the brig.”
Robert feared for Ayaou’s safety. How could he protect her when he wasn’t at the house? But Guan-jiah was there. He was armed with a revolver and knew how to use it? He didn’t know if his servant would fight. That worried him.
Links to Reviews for "Our Hart"
Honorable Mentions in General Fiction