“Is there something bothering you?” Unwyn asked. At the moment, he was the Maryann’s duty officer. “You’ve been pacing and watching the shore all morning. It’s too hot to be out here. The deck is like a frying pan. I’m about to have tea. You’re welcome to join me.”
Robert didn’t look at him. “No, I’m fine.” What he said wasn’t true . He hadn’t slept. He had no appetite.
“I shouldn’t have been so hard on you during the fight, but it was for your own good. It was foolish taking a risk for those boat people.”
“It was no bother,” Robert replied. He still didn’t look at Unwyn. He couldn’t take his eyes off the shoreline and the city. Where was Chou Luk? It was almost noon and the deadline for bidding on Ayaou was ending.
“Patridge was wrong about you.” Unwyn snapped. “You are a prig. I detest people like you. Rot in hell!” He spat over the side
“What?” Robert turned to Unwyn, whose face was red and swollen from anger. “Don’t take that tone with me!” Robert said. “I’ve done nothing to deserve it.”
“People like us come to places like China for one thing—to become rich or powerful or both.” Unwyn leaned closer. Robert smelled his sour breath. “You won’t achieve that by risking your life to save peasants.”
“What I did was right,” Robert retorted. “Get out of my face.”
“You are a fool and fools deserve what they get. Patridge was wrong taking you to Ward’s celebration. He will gain nothing from it.” Unwyn walked away.
Robert didn’t understand why Unwyn was so upset. Later he realized that by ignoring the man, Unwyn must have felt slighted, but Robert could think of only one thing then, Ayaou.
When Captain Patridge finished his business in Shanghai, he expected to sail back to his summerhouse on Zhoushan Island. Robert wanted to pay Chou Luk and take Ayaou with him. If needed, he’d use the money in his Hong Kong bank account. He was ready to sell everything he owned and ask for an advance on his pay. He was willing to offer as much as four hundred yuan to beat the others. However, if Chou Luk had changed his plans and didn’t come to the ship, what was he to do?
Robert had a tin flask with whiskey in it. He took a swallow to calm his nerves. The whiskey burned as it went down. It started a fire in his empty stomach. He should've taken Unwyn up on his offer and mended the rift between them. He regretted not doing so but made no attempt to go after Unwyn and explain himself.
Captain Patridge walked up. “Since I have business to finish, I’m going ashore for a short time. Would you care to join me?”
“I can’t for I have to talk to Chou Luk when he comes on board.” Robert stood by the ship’s side as Patridge went down the ladder to his waiting boat. At the bottom, the captain glanced up and gave Robert an odd look before the boat left.
Robert’s heart beat faster when he saw a small junk with a central cabin covered in bamboo matting moving toward the Maryann. After it came alongside, the first face to appear on deck was Ayaou’s father, Chou Luk. His younger daughters, Lan and Shao-mei, were close behind him.
Unwyn appeared. “All right, Hart,” he said in a tone full of malice, “you tell Chou Luk that Captain Patridge went ashore to finish some business with Boss Takee. He’s to wait for the Captain’s return. After you’ve done that, take these two girls below to the main cabin and see they don’t leave it. They are the Captain’s new concubines. The Captain does not take kindly to anyone spoiling his goods but a little touchy feely never hurts.” With a lecherous look on his face, he winked at Robert, as if he were considering it for himself.
Robert didn’t like the way Unwyn had talked to him, but he also didn’t want any trouble with the man. He just wanted him to go away. Didn’t Unwyn realize that Robert didn’t work for Patridge? He didn’t have to listen to him. However, to avoid problems, he passed on the information to Chou Luk and kept his thoughts to himself.
He didn’t see Ayaou, which made him wonder where she was. He started to worry. He told the girls to follow him below. Once they were in the captain’s cabin, Robert said, “You will stay here for your master.” He looked around the cramped space. When his eyes returned to the girls, he asked, “How is your sister, Ayaou?” The sisters, who were standing together, didn’t move and kept staring at the floor. Shao-mei, the older one, looked terrified.
“I’m Hart,” he said. “Robert Hart. Do you remember me?”
Shao-mei’s eyes came up. She shook her head.
“I’m Ayaou’s friend. I carried your father to safety during the fight against the Taipings.”
“We don’t know what happened to Ayaou,” Shao-mei said. “Our father doesn’t share with us his business. He said that we have been bought. We haven’t seen Ayaou since last night. Maybe you’ll be able to find her. Will you?” She stepped closer to Robert and looked boldly into her eyes. Her fear had vanished.
“What kind of man is Captain Patridge?” Lan asked. “Will he beat us?”
“He won’t beat you if you do what you’re told. You’ll not go hungry and will always have a comfortable place to live.” Robert thought of Willow and the other concubines staying at Patridge’s summerhouse and the life they lived entertaining his guests. He hated lying to these girls. Clearly Shao-mei still had a young girl’s dreams, where Willow’s dreams were dead. Shao-mei and Lan’s innocence struck pain inside him as if he’d been pierced by an ice pick. Soon Shao-mei’s eyes would be dull like Willow’s. He wanted to save Willow but didn’t know how. No, Robert could not tell them the truth. What purpose was served by scaring them?
The cabin was oppressively hot, so Robert moved to the windows running across the stern and opened them letting in the sluggish breeze. It improved the situation a bit. The sun wasn’t beating on them in here.
Back on deck, he waited and hoped for Ayaou to arrive. The minutes dragged like hours. He couldn’t wait any longer. There was another Chinese girl beside Chou Luk. She couldn’t have been much older than Ayaou.
Robert bowed to the older man, and said, “The weather is hot this time of year, and the air is thick with moisture.” He dreaded asking about Ayaou. It also didn’t help that his conscience was berating him for wanting to buy a woman. To think such a thing was foreign to the way his father and mother raised him.
“I have seen years where it is worse and some where it is better,” Chou Luk replied.
“Have you noticed the prices in the market since the Taipings have been here?” Robert hated himself for not getting to the point.
Chou Luk nodded. “The farmers are afraid. If they pick their crops and attempt taking them to the cities, the Taipings steal the food.”
Robert found it difficult to swallow. He ran a finger around the inside of his tight collar to loosen it, but that didn’t help. It was blasted hot. He was streaming with sweat. “Over here is some shade,” he said. “We can sit and talk there.” Sitting was a relief as his legs had turned to water and were trembling from nervousness. He ordered a deck boy to bring tea and biscuits.
“Is this young lady your daughter too?” Robert asked, and nodded toward the new girl sitting behind and to Chou Luk’s right.
“No.” Chou Luk smiled. “This ugly girl is my new daughter-in-law.”
“I’m sure she’ll provide many healthy grandchildren for you.”
“Sons, many sons.” Chou Luk smiled revealing a mouth filled with rotting, blackened teeth. “She’ll also help take care of me in my old age. What about you, young man? Got a wife yet?”
Now was the time. “I have been thinking.” He tried to smile, but his jaw felt locked. “If I may, I’d like to purchase your daughter, Ayaou. I’m willing to pay whatever price you ask.” He knew it was stupid to say such a thing. What if her father asked for too much, and Robert didn’t have it?
“You want Ayaou!” The old man looked surprised.
“What is a suitable price?” His hands started to shake. He hid them in his pockets.
Chou Luk gestured for his new daughter-in-law to pour more tea in his cup. He then spent a long moment sipping as his eyes avoided Robert. A boat bumped the side of the brig. Robert heard Captain Patridge’s voice. Ayaou’s father handed the cup to the girl and looked toward the opening in the rail. His leather-skinned, narrow face was blotched by age reminding Robert of a picture from the Dark Ages of starving people. Chou Luk’s hollow eyes had dark fleshy bags under them. A large half-inch mole sat securely on the left side of his jaw halfway between his mouth and ear. He had stringy, dark hair with strands of white showing through.
“Ayaou,” Robert said in an insistent voice. “I want to buy Ayaou.”
“Ayaou is no longer available,” the old man said. He didn’t look at Robert.
“What did you say?” Robert stammered.
“Frederick Ward bought her last night for three hundred yuan, much more than I expected,” Chou Luk said. “She’s not my property any longer. Frederick Ward is a wealthy, powerful man. He’ll make a suitable son-in-law.”
“But you said the bidding would last until noon,” Robert said. “I heard you say that.”
Chou Luk ignored him. The anger simmered and thickened in Robert’s belly. Chou Luk stood and went to the rail to greet Captain Patridge.
Robert stared into the two empty teacups wanting to smash them. What was he going to do now? He didn’t move while he listened to the drone of their voices. Money exchanged hands. Chou Luk left.
“Why are you sitting there, Robert, looking so forlorn?” It was Patridge.
Robert scrambled to his feet holding back tears of disappointment and suddenly realized how much Ayaou meant to him. She had been his first virgin. She had picked him. That thought alone caused his guts to knot up in pain like a wet dishrag twisted until the water was gone. He grimaced.
“What is it?” Captain Patridge put a hand on his shoulder. “My god, you look like you were tortured. Maybe I can help.”
How could he? How could anyone do anything for him? He had allowed himself to blunder into a situation that he couldn’t control. Robert wanted to escape this horrible place but at the same time, he didn’t want to go. If he left Shanghai, he might never see Ayaou again. Feeling lost, he sat on the deck and stared into nothingness.
“We’ll be leaving tomorrow morning.” Captain Patridge squatted beside Robert. “I’ve negotiated for a cargo of silk that’ll go to England after the brig drops us off at the Lookong receiving station. With the silk already at the station and the lot I just bought, we’ll have a full load and a profit.”
Robert couldn’t bear the idea that what he’d started with Ayaou wouldn’t continue. His expression must’ve given him away, because Patridge looked at him with compassion.
“It’s Ayaou,” Robert said. “I wanted to make her my concubine, but Ward bought her. Chou Luk didn’t keep his word. I miscalculated. I’m a fool.”
“No, Ward is the fool,” Captain Patridge replied. “He has a dozen whores as concubines, and he paid more for Ayaou than I paid for both of her sisters. He’s drunk from power and wealth. Did you know that they call Ward the Devil Soldier behind his back? By the way, where are my two concubines?”
“In your cabin.”
“Chou Luk should have waited,” Patridge went on. “Though you don’t have the wealth Ward has, you’re a dependable man. It probably has not crossed Chou Luk’s mind that we think differently from the Chinese. He sold three of his daughters to men he believes are going to help take care of him. You think that I will? He’ll get no help from Ward either. Ward is a lunatic bent on self-destruction. He’s taking his army to Sungkiang before the week is out. I wouldn’t take that rabble to the latrine. They’re worthless. Did you see how they acted at the Taiping camp?” Patridge shook his head. “They’re barbarians.”
Robert’s mind was stuck on Ayaou. Patridge’s voice droned on. “And as for me,” Patridge continued, “I expect to return to England a wealthy man. None of my concubines will go with me. I will sell them to someone else. I plan to get my capital back and make a profit.” He laughed. “After all, I taught them how to please properly. How about you, Robert? When the time comes, I’ll sell Willow to you at a reduced price just because you are a friend.”