Robert brooded that day trying to figure out how he was going to get word to Guan-jiah and Ayaou. He didn’t know how. He thought that maybe a lull in the fighting would provide an opportunity.
Regrettably, it turned out that Robert was correct about the shooting of the fifty innocent Chinese. Attacks against the city started coming day and night. The streets became extremely dangerous. After several days of confinement in the barracks and fear for Ayaou's safety, Robert decided to risk sneaking out.
After making his decision, he was afraid to look at anyone. He didn’t want to give his plans away by looking suspicious. Anyone could be watching him.
“Robert,” one British captain asked, “is something bothering you? Lately, you act as if you have a lot on your mind. Did something happen with your family?” Robert knew the officer was talking about Ireland. They had played several games of chess together and shared stories of their growing up. His name was Kenton. He’d spent most of his youth in boarding schools. His parents were important people. His father was in parliament and owned large estates.
“It’s nothing, Kent. A tooth hurts when I chew. I don’t want anyone here to touch it. What am I to do?”
“I understand,” Kenton replied. “I don’t trust the battalion surgeon either. I have heard some grisly stories about him ripping out teeth when the job didn’t need to be done. If you can hold off, I suggest a trip to Hong Kong when you have time to take care of it.”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking,” Robert said. “How about a game of chess?” Robert thought that this would throw any suspicion off him if others saw them in the common room playing a game. Robert planned to make his escape later that night.
* * *
To avoid the sentries and other spying eyes, Robert climbed onto the roof of the large building where he was quartered. He then jumped to the next building. It was risky but the Chinese style of the city lent itself to this kind of stealth.
Most of the streets were narrow twisting allies and the tiled roofs hung out over the streets and were close together. Robert knew that the haphazard design was intentional. The Chinese believed in spirits and ghosts who were only capable of walking in straight lines. That was why the Chinese had built the city with a maze of twisting streets—to keep ghosts from getting into the city.
The first-time Robert jumped from one roof to another, he thought he was going to fall two stories to his death. Running on the brittle, smooth tiles and leaping out into empty space toward the other roof put a scare into him. He landed on the other side and managed to keep from sliding into the alley. However, a few loose tiles clattered to the street below. He held his breath and waited to be discovered. When nothing happened, he moved on.
That night, while he scurried like a monkey across the city’s roofs, there were heavy rockets being fired into the city. From his high vantage point, he watched. Arcs of fire and sparks revealed the trails the missiles followed as they dropped inside the walls setting off a flash and then the rumble of an explosion. Each time that happened, the night blossomed for a moment into day. Dancing spots of light impaired Robert’s vision and made him feel helpless. He stopped until his night vision returned.
After an hour, he thought God might be on his side and that was why no one had seen him. He was sure that if a British or French patrol spotted him leaping from building to building, he'd be shot like a squirrel in a tree.
“Halt, I say,” a voice said from a narrow street Robert had just crossed by leaping from roof to roof. He dropped to the tiles and did not move. His heart hammered like a drum. The air was cold, but he started sweating.
“What is it, Fairfax? Were you seeing Chinese ghosts again?”
“No. I saw something up there between those buildings. It was suspicious like.”
The sentries fell quiet. Robert knew they were waiting for him to move and make a noise. He hugged the roof wanting to become part of it. He could smell the fear in his sweat.
“There’s nothing there, Fairfax. You’re seeing things again.”
“It was one of those Chinese spirits, Wetherby. I know it was.”
“You’re daft. Let’s finish our rounds. We’ll be relieved soon. You can report your suspicions then. If you do, the lieutenant will probably order us to go on the roofs and risk breaking bones searching about. If I was you, I’d keep my mouth shut.”
“I don’t know.”
“Next time you see one of those ghosts of yours, shoot it, Fairfax. Then we’ll find out if it has flesh and bones or is just your imagination.”
Robert tensed as he listened to their voices fade. Once he was sure they were gone, he crawled over the rooftop and down the other side. His legs were so shaky he was afraid to walk. That had been close.
He started to doubt his ability to reach Ayaou. Another pair of sentries could discover him. Next time, they might shoot and not bother to check or ask questions.
Links to Reviews for "Our Hart"
Honorable Mentions in General Fiction