That night, he visited Ayaou again. His feelings and fears leaked out of him against his own wishes. He was more worried for her safety than ever.
“What if you or Guan-jiah had been in that part of city when the fifty innocent victims had been randomly rounded up and shot?” he said. “There wasn’t even a trial. You could be dead.”
“You miss the point, Robert,” she replied. “The imperial government knows that such an action makes a statement. When the people see the caged heads of those fifty Chinese hanging above the city’s gates, they will know they have to take the government’s orders seriously. The Taipings will not gain the support they have been getting. The people will think twice before they offer again. I thought you understood China better than that.”
* * *
To make matters worse, a few days later, Parkes discovered that he had been going out every night. “Why have you been sneaking away from your quarters like a common thief?” Parkes asked.
Robert stood before Parkes desk and avoided the commissioner’s eyes. He felt like a student called in front of the headmaster for a prank he’d committed. Feeling guilty, his face blushed and he stared at the floor. His breakfast curdled in his stomach. He wanted to throw up.
“Come on, Hart, speak.”
He didn’t want to tell Parkes he’d been sneaking away to be with his Chinese concubine. What would Parkes think? Robert continued to stare at the floor and resented the fact that he felt this way.
“Hart, if you don’t tell me, I’ll have to order you to be confined to your quarters. I want you to know that when you were recommended to me there were rumors saying you were unreliable. I heard you were a liar and a coward and couldn’t be trusted.”
Robert’s head jerked up. Hot anger flooded his face. “Who’s spreading such lies?” He immediately regretted the tone in his voice.
“Does it matter, Hart?”
“Yes, it does.” His voice was firm, not as angry.
“Tell me where you’ve been going, and I’ll give you a name.” Parkes pounded the surface of his desk with a closed fist. “Damn it, Hart, you are a good man. I don’t want to believe what I’ve heard.”
“It’s a woman,” he said, and the words tasted bitter. “I’ve been going out to spend my nights with a Chinese woman. Please don’t tell anyone.” His face burned with embarrassment.
“What’s wrong with you, Hart? Men need women and women are easy to find here. If you want a woman, why are you sneaking around about it?”
“I didn’t want anyone to know. It’s personal.”
“I see. Well, if you have to go out every now and then to be lusty with a whore, you will have a corporal and five men accompany you. Of course, the corporal will report to me, so I will know where you are going and whom you are seeing. I don’t like my men sneaking around. It would be better if we just brought the whore here.”
“Who was spreading lies about me?” Robert asked. He was determined to find out.
Parkes blinked. “Yes, I did say I’d trade information. Don’t do anything rash. I’ve never met the man. They told me he works out of Hong Kong and Macao and has three small sloops. He is one of the opium merchants. A small one—nothing big.”
“His name, sir.”
“Let’s see.” Parkes stared at the ceiling. He looked uncomfortable. Robert felt as if he had taken control of the moment. It felt good. “Payne Hollister. Yes, that is the name.”
Hearing Hollister’s name was like a heavy blow between the shoulder blades. Hollister was still in China. The man hadn’t returned to England after all. For a moment, Robert held his breath. “You said he was an opium merchant?” he asked.
“That’s what I was told, and why I didn’t take what I heard seriously. Do you know this man?”
Good Lord, if Hollister was spreading vile lies in an attempt to ruin Robert’s life, the man still harbored a grudge for what happened with Me-ta-tae. If that was true , maybe Hollister was behind the attacks on Ayaou and Robert in Ningpo. It was bad enough that he had Ward to worry about in Northern China. Now he had to worry about Hollister in the South.
“I asked a question,” Parkes said.
“I worked with Hollister in Ningpo before he quit the consular service. I thought he returned to England.”
“If he is generating gossip like this, he must dislike you for some reason. If something happened between you two, I don’t want to know about it. That’s not my concern.” Parkes came around the desk. “Robert,” he said, “you have proven yourself to me. You are an honest, courageous, hardworking man. Someone I can depend on. Forget about this Hollister fellow. His type always comes to a bad end anyway.
“And stop whoring around. If you want a woman, we can have one brought here to take care of your needs. If you don’t like that, then you are going to have to give up women until Canton is safe.” Parkes looked tired. He shook his head. “We all have our vices. I just thought better of you, Robert. Whores!” He said the word as if it were something evil.
“Ayaou is not a whore,” he said. “She’s my concubine. When I bought her, she was a virgin. We have been together for three years. I can’t go see her with an escort. An escort will draw attention to where I am going and the rebels will mark her and my servant for death. I trust you will keep this conversation private.”
Parkes did not look surprised. Instead, he nodded as if he already knew.
“Have you had someone watching me?” Robert asked, shocked.
“Of course. You were sneaking around like a common thief or a spy. Once I discovered what you were up to, I wanted to know if I could trust you. It didn’t take long for my man to discover you were seeing a woman. Until now, we didn’t know whom that Chinese man was that was staying with her. We thought it might be possible you were being blackmailed by someone to reveal information about our operations.”
“You didn’t have to spy on me,” he said. “All you had to do was ask. I would’ve told you what I was doing even if it were against your orders.”
“Robert,” Parkes said, “these are difficult times. Even I must do without my wife and family. I miss her, but she is safer in Hong Kong. If you care for this woman, why is she still here? Send her to Hong Kong or Macau with your servant.”
“It looks like I have no choice,” he replied. He felt his shoulders sagging.
“Precisely. You are too valuable to end up dead. Take this as a direct order. You are forbidden to leave the compound unless you are with an armed guard. We cannot trust anyone but our own people at this point. Send this woman and your servant away.”
Robert started to open his mouth.
Parkes shook his head and looked as if he were disappointed. “No one will hear from my lips what we talked about, Robert. I’m not the sort for gossip or rumors. You should know that by now.
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Honorable Mentions in General Fiction