That night, he was impotent. Ayaou did her best to arouse him. But, no matter how much he wanted to make love, he couldn’t make it happen. His mind was filled with worry for Ayaou.
Ayaou sounded desperate when she said, “You do not find me attractive any more. You want to forget me.” She looked forlorn.
“That’s not true , Ayaou. It’s the fighting. When we aren’t together, all I do is think about your safety. It consumes me.”
“What is there to worry about? I am only a woman. If I die, you can replace me. If you die, my life is over.” She started to cry. He held her until she fell asleep. She was curled against him with her legs twined with his. Her head was on his chest. He wanted to roll onto his side because his back was becoming numb, but he didn’t. He was afraid to wake her. Guan-jiah had told him she couldn’t sleep when he wasn’t there.
He listened to every noise inside and outside of the little house. He fell asleep hours later only to wake drenched in sweat with the blanket twisted between and around his legs.
Ayaou was still sleeping. She had moved to the far side of the mat with her knees against her chest and her arms around her legs.
He had had a terrible dream where Shao-mei was dressed as a French sailor and was being chased by Taipings. They caught her and beheaded her. In the nightmare, Guan-jiah brought Shao-mei’s head to him so he could bury it. Guan-jiah couldn’t find her body, and when Robert looked at the face on that severed head, it wasn’t Shao-mei. It was Ayaou.
He couldn’t tell if Ayaou was breathing. Then he was afraid it wasn’t her. His heart started to pound from panic. To make sure this sleeping person was Ayaou, he propped himself on one elbow and put his face inches from hers trying to make out her features in the dark.
He admonished himself for thinking crazy. Who else could be on this sleeping mat with him?
However, that didn’t stop him from wanting to know if she were still alive. He stuck one of his fingers in his mouth to moisten it and placed it under her nose. His finger felt the cool touch of her breath. He tried to relax after that.
With caution, he straightened the blanket and spread it evenly over both of them. She still didn’t move. Her body was warm and the room was chilly. He slid closer to her. She responded by throwing a leg across his and pressing against him. He held his breath afraid she’d wake. His member stood at attention. He wanted to make love.
Then there was a sharp noise like someone trying to pry a shuttered window open. Robert untangled himself from Ayaou’s arms and legs and slipped naked from the blankets into the cold. He took an eight-inch knife and his revolver from the floor next to the sleeping mat. He stopped in the doorway and looked longingly at Ayaou. He wanted to stay, but it was his duty to protect the woman he loved. He’d failed once. He wasn’t going to fail again. He would die first.
Like a pale ghost, he slipped silently downstairs until he saw the shadowy shape of a man standing by the front door. Robert lifted the cocked pistol and started to squeeze the trigger when he heard a similar click from the shadow confronting him. He shivered in dread expecting a round to tear through him.
“Master, is that you?” Guan-jiah said, just as Robert was going to pull his trigger and shoot the shadow.
“Guan-jiah?” he said. He relaxed and let the heavy Colt drop to his side until the barrel pointed at the floor. His neck was stiff. He rotated his head in circles. “Did you find anything?” Good Lord, he’d almost shot his servant.
“Nothing, Master.” There was a click as Guan-jiah release his weapon’s hammer.
“I don’t think I can sleep after this,” Robert said. He glanced longingly at the stairs and shivered. The cold was soaking through his skin.
“Master, you are going to be sick standing here naked.” Guan-jiah hurried to where he slept and came back with a blanket that he draped over Robert’s shoulders.
“Brew a pot of that famous chrysanthemum tea of yours, Guan-jiah. “If we aren’t going to sleep, we might as well find something to do.” He pulled the blanket tight around his body.
“The tea will warm us,” his servant replied, as he hurried to the kitchen to add twigs to the glowing embers inside the belly of the ceramic stove.
When it was time for Robert to leave, they were still sitting around the table drinking tea and eating dried Shan-tung red dates from a bowl. The only sound was the crunch of those dates between their teeth.
* * *
It was nerve-racking as he made his way through the city to the commission that morning. He’d dallied too long and missed the cover of darkness. Maybe Ayaou should return to Ningpo.
No, that wasn’t a good idea. In Ningpo, she would be too close to Ward. However, she could go to Macao and live with Cousin Weed on his junk along with her father and Uncle Bark. If Ayaou did that, she would be safer and life would be easier for him. He could stop skulking about in the early morning darkness expecting to lose his head.
* * *
A few days later, Robert heard that the Bureau of Foreign Affairs for China, the Yamen, had sent armed English and French soldiers to the street where the French sailor had been taken. Under the Yamen’s orders, they shot fifty Chinese at random who lived or worked near the site.
He was with Parkes when he heard the news “This is crazy!” he said. “This kind of action will stir up more sentiment for the rebels. Aren’t things bad enough as they are? The ones who killed the French sailor are gone by now. Why should innocent people suffer for someone else’s deed? This is going to make things worse.”
“Calm down, Robert,” Parkes said. “It’s their country. The imperials know how to handle their people. Besides, the French were screaming for blood so the Chinese gave it to them.”
“China is ruled by the Manchu minority, and they do not trust the Han majority. The Manchu overreacted, and we could have stopped them.”
Parkes shook his head. “I’m disappointed, Robert. This doesn’t sound like you at all. I thought you believed in letting the Chinese make their own decisions.”
“This is not a productive conversation,” Robert said. “Besides, I have work to do.” He went to his desk. He didn’t care if Parkes was angry with him for his abrupt departure.
As far as he was concerned, it was a waste of time and effort trying to educate people like Parkes about China. They didn’t listen. He had almost mentioned how the foreign powers like Britain had been dictating policy to China for years while forcing China to swallow opium. The Chinese government did not have a choice. When they said no, the results had been war.
It was like a robber holding a gun to the victim’s head, but at the same time helping the victim stay in business by supporting ruthless tactics that harmed innocent people. It made no sense to him.
Links to Reviews for "Our Hart"
Honorable Mentions in General Fiction