In December of 1858, Robert went to Parkes and requested ten days leave. Since the rebel activity had subsided, the commissioner granted the request. He sailed on one of the British gunboats to Hong Kong where he transferred to another ship going to Macao.
He arrived in Macao’s crescent shaped bay late in the afternoon of the same day. Macao was a Portuguese colony and the wooded hills were crowded with houses that were light blue and pink and yellow. The architectural style was that of Southern Europe. The Portuguese had first settled here in 1557, almost three hundred years before Hong Kong became a British Crown Colony.
The hulls of the junks crowding the harbor were painted red. Other junks sailed into the bay with the sunlight gleaming off the tan and beige matted sails. It was difficult to believe that war with the Taipings and other rebels was raging throughout most of China.
Piles and baskets full of fish crowded the dock where he went ashore. More fish were spread to dry on the junks’ roofs. Rusty colored fishing nets had been hung from tall masts to dry in the afternoon sun.
A coolie offered him a ride for a small price. He climbed into the rickshaw and off they went down Praia Grande Avenue shaded by banyan trees. Turbaned East Indian police directed traffic.
When he found Cousin Weed’s junk, he had to cross three other boats to reach it. The first familiar face he saw belonged to Guan-jiah. He went up to his servant and took hold of his hands. “It’s good to see you, my friend,” Robert said.
Guan-jiah looked embarrassed and pleased at the same time. He wondered if the eunuch would ever be comfortable in his world. For most of his stay, he seldom saw the eunuch.
The distance the Chinese put between servants and masters unsettled him. Since he’d never had servants before coming to China, this was something he had trouble getting used to. To him, Guan-jiah was his equal and shouldn’t be calling him master. He had trouble seeing himself as the master of any person.
Robert had been raised a Wesleyan. His father was a pastor and taught his twelve children that all men and women were equal. It also bothered him that Ayaou thought of herself as his concubine, his property.
He didn’t think about it often but when he did, it was with pangs of guilt. For that reason, he never mentioned Ayaou to friends and family in the letters he wrote to Northern Ireland. They would never understand.
He doubted she would be treated as an equal. He suspected that their beliefs did not include people outside their own race. Over time, Mary and his mother might accept Ayaou, but he didn't want to take the chance that they would hurt her feelings. He loved her too much to subject her to that form of cruelty.
“Chou Luk is here,” Guan-jiah said. “Master, it would please Ayaou if you greeted him first. It is only proper.”
Every time he talked to Chou Luk, he only heard bad news. “Where is the old man?” Guan-jiah bobbed his head and led the way. They found the Chou Luk sitting aft in the shade with two young girls cooling him with large handheld fans.
He tried not to stare. Chou Luk had aged and gained weight. A lot of his hair had fallen out and what remained looked greasy and stringy. The flesh on his face sagged and the mole on his chin looked larger. The bags under his eyes seemed filled with black ink.
“Ah,” the old man said. “My son-in-law has come to pay his respect.”
Robert almost said, I am not your son-in-law, but he managed to keep his mouth shut and his face expressionless.
Chou Luk made no effort to rise. The old man’s puffy eyes were half closed. From the length of his whiskers, it looked like he hadn’t shaved in days. His body had a rancid, sour odor. Robert wanted to ask if he bathed, but he knew this to be unacceptable and rude. Piety forbids criticizing elders. To do so, would only earn Ayaou’s anger. He didn’t want that. He wanted his stay to be pleasant.
He recognized one of the girls. She'd been with the old man when Robert had fallen in love with Ayaou. Although he knew she had to be at least fifteen, she looked younger. He wondered who the other girl was. He didn’t think she was one of Ayaou’s sisters. He’d never seen her before.
“I see you are well cared for,” Robert said, after nodding his head slightly. He didn’t offer his hand. He didn’t want to give this old man too much respect.
Chou Luk gestured with his hands. “My wives,” he said. “I bought another wife a few months ago since the first one hasn’t given me a son.” Chou Luk spit on the deck and scowled. “Only two daughters—clean that up, girl,” he said to the first wife. “Daughters are useless. All they do is eat and cost money. I was going to stuff them in a sack filled with rocks and toss them in the river, but she cried and begged. She said if I got rid of them, I wouldn’t have them to help feed and clean me when I can’t leave my bed any longer.”
Robert hid the revulsion he felt. He knew that in China women had little or no value. “Your business must have been profitable to be able to acquire a second wife.” His stomach soured. The thought of these two young girls with this old man sickened him.
“No, business has been bad. Ayaou gave me the money. She said two wives would take care of me better than one and provide double happiness and double the chance for a son to carry on the family name.”
After the greetings, Guan-jiah led Robert forward, away from Chou-Luk. “Where did he get the money to buy the second girl?” he asked. He suspected the truth and feared he was right.
“Ayaou took it from the money you sent.”
Blood rushed to his head. God, forgive me, he thought. Light headed, he grabbed the railing to keep from losing his balance.
“And the rest?” His stomach felt as if it were full of snails, shells and all. He feared the answer. What if she had given it to the fortuneteller?
“It went to Cousin Weed. He used it on repairs for the junk. I made sure of that, Master.”
“Thank you, Guan-jiah.” He felt like he was going to lose his breakfast. It sickened him to think that some of his money had been used to buy Chou Luk another young girl. The girls were no beauties, but what a horrible fate. He wondered what would happen to them after Chou Luk died. Would Cousin Weed take care of them or sell them to someone else?
Honorable Mentions in General Fiction