On the last day in May, three armed British soldiers escorted a Chinese boy into the commission. The soldiers did not look friendly, and the boy’s eyes were wide with fear.
“He was asking to see you, Mr. Hart,” one of the soldiers said. “We were going to knock him upside the head if he didn’t leave, but he insisted.”
“That’s okay. You may go.”
The soldiers didn’t move.
Robert stepped closer to the boy, knelt and spoke in Cantonese. “Did someone send a message?” The boy nodded. It was obvious he was too scared to talk.
The guards glared at the boy. Robert stood and faced them. “This boy weighs less than forty pounds,” he said. “Do you insult me by insinuating I can’t defend myself against a child? Go.”
Parkes wasn’t around. Robert knew that no one in the room spoke the language. “What is the message?” he asked. His heart was pounding and he held his breath. The boy handed him a folded note. It was from Ayaou. Robert's hand started to tremble. She was in Canton. It took an effort to keep his voice calm and his features composed. His legs and feet wanted to run—to find her. Instead, he forced himself to calm down and breathe.
He took a yuan out of his pocket and held it for the boy to see. A common Chinese laborer had to work a sixteen-hour day to earn two or three yuan. The boy couldn’t take his eyes off the coin. He reached for the money.
“Not so fast,” Robert said, and held the money out of reach. “Show me where this boat is first.”
The boy guided him to the river and pointed at a junk anchored a hundred yards from shore. Robert put the coin in the boy’s palm, and the child stared at it as if it were a precious jewel. Then he popped it in his mouth. With the coin safely hidden, he looked to see if anyone had noticed.
“Kui loh, Kui loh, Kui loh.” Robert stared at a group of adolescent boys on the other side of the street. They had called him a foreign devil. He was the only Westerner on the street and considering the state of affairs in Canton, he’d just put himself into a dangerous, life threatening situation. He remembered the murdered British sailor.
He glanced at the spot where the messenger boy had stood to discover he was gone.
The pistol wasn’t in Robert’s pocket. A ball of fear burst into life inside his guts. Ayaou’s letter had so excited him that he hadn’t thought to get his revolver and bring it with him. He couldn’t defend himself. What a stupid thing to do?
With his stomach churning, he walked toward the river. He was not going to show his fear by running. His back felt as if it were crawling with wasps. He examined all the beached sampans and was careful to pick a boat person. He hoped that a boat person would not be connected to the rebels because of their outcast state.
He heard a noise and looked over his shoulder. The boys were picking up rocks. Robert slipped his hand into a pocket and lifted that corner of his jacket as if a weapon were there and his finger the barrel. He put a menacing look on his face. He took two steps toward the gang. The five adolescents looked from his face to the pocket as if a pistol were inside. They dropped their rocks and ran.
Robert stepped into the sampan. The boatman pushed the sampan into the river.
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Honorable Mentions in General Fiction