Horatio Lay, who Robert had not seen for several years, came south to help set up the new Custom’s house in Canton. Horatio stayed into 1860 before returning to Shanghai. Horatio had not changed. He was still the opinionated man he had always been.
“Has Patridge been to see you?” Horatio asked. They were going over manifests and computing the duties that were to be paid to the Chinese by the foreign ships anchored in the river.
“I haven’t talked to Patridge for months,” Robert replied.
“Well,” Horatio said, “don’t be surprised if the scoundrel walks into your office one day in an attempt to buy you off so his ships won’t have to pay duties.” His brows lowered and he started to storm about the crowded office knocking papers to floor from the desk. Robert knelt to retrieve them. It seemed that Horatio’s temper hadn’t changed either.
“He had the audacity to offer me a bribe,” Horatio said. “I sent him packing after I gave him a piece of my mind. The gall of that man to treat me like a common thief he could buy.”
Robert was still gathering papers from the floor. He avoided eye contact with his superior, thinking of the services he had provided for Patridge while still living in Ningpo. Guilt stirred in his stomach. Should he tell Horatio? What would Horatio think if he found out about the money Patridge had paid him to do exactly what Horatio was angry about?
“This goes no further,” Horatio continued. “It stays between us.”
“What stays between us?” Robert asked, confused.
“Do you agree?”
He felt reluctant to agree to something that he knew nothing about. What if Horatio were going to confess to murdering someone? On the other hand, he might learn something important. He remembered advice the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring, had given him soon after he arrived in China.
“Take everything that happens and learn from it,” Sir Bowring had said. “In the end you will be a better, stronger person. Don’t shy away from understanding things even if you disagree with them.” That advice had served Robert well.
He overruled his sense of caution, and asked, “What is it?”
“Only if you agree that what I tell you does not leave this room.”
It irritated him to be thrust into a situation like this.
“Look at me. I want to see the sincerity in your eyes.”
Robert realized he was not being given a choice. If he refused, Horatio wouldn’t trust him, and Horatio was his superior in Shanghai.
The mask he had worked hard to perfect slid into place. He looked into Horatio’s eyes, confident his expression would hide his true feelings. “I agree.”
“Good,” Horatio said. “I’ve heard you can be trusted. While I was working with the British Consulate in Shanghai, Patridge bribed me to help with his shipments. However, the situation in China has changed. The last treaty Between Britain and China forced the emperor to create a uniform Imperial Customs Service throughout the empire. Eventually, the provincial governors will no longer be allowed to collect taxes for imported goods and keep the money. Those duties will go to the imperial treasury. Do you know the reason for that?”
“So China has more money to modernize,” Robert replied.
“You are so naïve,” Horatio said, and shook his head.
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Honorable Mentions in General Fiction