Robert coughed up some mucus and spit it over the side. Women in China were treated like furniture. No, they were treated worse. He was disgusted.
A few years later Robert learned how wrong he was. Family was more important than the individual in China. It was explained by the simple fact that the last name came first. After he learned Chinese ways and mastered the language, Robert introduced himself to a Chinese person as ‘Hart, Robert’ instead of the other way around.
It was unthinkable for a daughter or a son, no matter what his or her circumstances, not to take care of a parent. To the Chinese, piety was more important than one’s comfort or situation.
Emperors of the Han Dynasty were known to have sold their daughters but the price was different—it was peace instead of silver. One day Robert heard a singer storyteller present the story about Princess Wen-cheng, who lived about sixteen hundred years in the past. The singer sat with an audience around him. He had a pipa propped on his lap. The pipa was a four stringed instrument similar to a guitar but the strings ran the width instead of the length. He’d sing the story and pause while he strummed the pipa for a dramatic touch.
Princess Wen-cheng was sold to a warlord in Tibet, and she was the only Han living there. Before she left her father’s court, there was a parting between the emperor and the princess full of tears and sobs. The Chinese had a term for this type of purchase. It was called ho-phan, which in English translated to barbarian harmony.
Robert eventually learned that Chou Luk, like the Han Emperor, also suffered. He had two choices. He could sell his daughters and gain the money to take care of his medical needs and buy a wife for his son or die and possibly leave his family to starve. He could have earned more if he’d sold his son, but without a son no one would carry on the family name.
Patridge squeezed Robert’s shoulder. “Cheer up, Robert. You’ll get over that Chinese siren. I predict that in a few weeks you won’t remember her. I suggest that you find an experienced whore. One who is beautiful too. I’m going ashore soon to conduct more business. Come along. I’ll show you around. After I’m finished, we can have some fun. After all, everything is for sale in Shanghai.”
“I’m tired.” His despair was like a ball and chain.
“You have my permission to use my cabin to sleep. I won’t be back for several hours.”
“Lan and Shao-mei are in there!” Robert said swiftly.
“That’s right,” Patridge said. His face brightened. “Come with me. I know what will free you from the doldrums.”
Robert followed the captain below to the cabin where the two sisters huddled side-by-side on the window seat holding hands. Their eyes, both frightened and confused, studied Captain Patridge. They’d worn cloaks when they’d come aboard, but the cloaks were off. They were dressed in the skimpy outfits they’d danced in the night before.
“I paid eighty yuan for the pair. The father did me a favor, because he works for me. That’s why they were such a bargain. Shao-mei is fourteen and she’s just blossoming. Lan is thirteen.” Patridge put an arm across Robert’s shoulders and pulled him closer. “I like you, Robert.” He whispered like a conspirator. “Listen, I’ll sell you Shao-mei for the same price I paid. She looks like her older sister anyway and because she’s younger, she’s tastier, more desirable—fresher meat. I’ve always liked the younger ones. That’s why I’m keeping Lan.”
Robert wanted to say how disgusted he was but didn’t.
Patridge stepped toward the sisters and leaned over Shao-mei. He took her chin in his hand and tilted her face toward his. “I’m selling you to Mr. Hart here.” Her frightened eyes shifted to Robert. The captain squeezed her chin and shook her head a bit as if to scold her. She strained to stand on her tiptoes. Her shoulders tightened from pain. Robert was tempted to say something but decided she was in no danger. He saw no need to intervene. What Patridge did with his property was none of Robert’s business. It didn’t matter that the property was human. It still didn’t feel right though.
“He’s going to be your master,” Patridge said. “Make him happy. If he isn’t happy, he might not want you.” A lecherous grin spread across his face. “I’ll keep you if that happens.” He released her, and Shao-mei lost her balance and staggered back. There were red spots where his fingers had squeezed her chin.
“You’ll go with me,” Patridge said to Lan. “Get your cloak.” He grabbed her hand and pulled her off balance, so she stumbled. A startled look flashed across her face.
“Shao-mei,” she cried in desperation. “Don’t leave me alone.”
After they left, Robert was alone with Shao-mei. He saw the shock on her face as she stared at the closed door. Robert was amazed at how much she resembled Ayaou. She had a round face with full cheeks and a lovely pair of dimples, but her shoulder length hair wasn’t as dark and shiny as Ayaou’s. The only blemishes were two pimples on her forehead. Though Shao-mei still hadn’t filled out completely as a woman, her developing breasts were small. Her hips were shapely and she had a slender waist and muscular legs.
She came to kneel at his feet, and she touched his ankles with her fingers. Her face turned to his. She looked timid but with a twinkle in her eyes. “I’ll do whatever you want, Master.” There was relief in her voice. Robert was struck speechless and stared.
After an empty moment, she asked nervously, “Why have you no words? You don’t like me?” Doubt appeared on her face.
A shiver rushed through him as her fingers gently crept up his legs. He stumbled back to get away from her and sat abruptly on the window seat. He buried his face in his hands.
Robert jerked as Shao-mei rested her head on his lap and circled his waist with her arms. “I do a good massage,” she said in a small voice. “I’ve practiced on cabbages daily. My fingers will relax you. I also do pressure-acupuncture. It’ll make you feel as if you just ate a chicken full of vitality.”
“No.” He pushed her away. Robert thought of the carrots Ayaou practiced sucking and kissing. He felt guilt from the fact that he had an erection.
“You are unhappy with me?” she said, while tears filled her eyes.
He made no reply.
“You don’t find me pleasing.” Her lower lip trembled.
“It isn’t that. You’re lovely, Shao-mei. It’s just that I’m tired and want to sleep.” He stood and walked to the bunk nestled against the starboard side of the cabin. He slipped onto the bunk and closed his eyes.
“I’ll keep you company.” Shao-mei joined him. Her slender, young body molded to his. She buried her face against his chest.
He pushed her away.
Shao-mei propped herself up on one elbow and wiped the tears from her eyes. “You’re sweating, and your face has turned red. Is it too hot? Let me take off your jacket and pants.”
Robert felt as if he were dreaming when Shao-mei pulled off his boots and took hold of the cuffs of his pants. Ignoring his protests, she undressed him leaving his legs and feet naked. A tug of war raged inside him. His mind was in shock although his body was stimulated and delighted. His erection swelled toward the bursting point. He was glad that he had on baggy underpants to hide it.
Her fingers went to work unbuttoning his shirt. He was like a helpless baby in its crib. She pulled the shirt off, and when her fingers went to his underpants, panic threatened to castrate him.
“Stop!” He was desperate and grabbed her hands and locked them in his. Touching her excited him. “Look, Shao-mei, you don’t know what you’re doing.” His heart thundered inside his chest. He was having trouble breathing. Good Lord, this was the sister of the woman he had deflowered the night before. This wasn’t right.
“I know what I’m doing,” she said in a frustrated tone. “If I can’t make you like me, you won’t keep me. You’re thinking about returning me to Captain Patridge. I don’t like him. He already hit me once last night after he bought me. I made him angry. He threatened to pull the nerves out of my body and make them into a rope to hang his clothes on. You can’t give me back to him!”
“This is making me crazy.” Robert let her hands go. He stared at the crisscrossing timbers of the cabin’s ceiling. “Stop bothering me,” he said, controlling the expression on his face. “I’m going to sleep.” He shut his eyes.
It was quiet. The only sounds were his heart and his ragged breathing. Then he heard the soft sound silk makes when it slides across smooth skin. He cracked open an eye and saw that Shao-mei was naked. He stopped breathing. His stealthy eye traveled the length of her taking in the smooth, tanned skin and the gentle curves.
“Don’t worry, Master,” Shao-mei said, trying to sound confident and brave. “I’m not a finished woman, but I am a woman.” She slid her hands down the length of her nude torso to her vulva. “Two months ago, I had the hot tide for the first time. I’m ready to have babies.”
This dazzled Robert. He was in complete disarray. It took an effort to breathe.
“If you aren’t pleased because I don’t have full breasts yet,” she said with determination, “I promise that they’ll grow to the size of tomatoes in a few months. I’m not lying. See, these nipples were not like this a few weeks ago.” She fondled a nipple. It hardened and stood at attention. “The captain wasn’t bothered. He liked them.”
Robert shook his head in disbelief. He couldn’t take his eyes off her.
“You will discover that I’m good. I’ll keep your bed warm. I’ll cook for you. I’ll clean your clothes and keep your house in order. I’ll make sure that none of your servants cheat you.”
It would have been a lie to say that he wasn’t tempted. He didn’t know if he had the strength to resist his lust.
This desirable young virgin was offering herself to him, and Ayaou belonged to another man. Robert had promised to make Ayaou his concubine. He’d followed through with that promise when he made the offer to her father. He had no control over what Chou Luk had done with Ayaou.
Robert resented what had happened, but what could he do to change the circumstances? Ward had an army. An image of Ward devouring Ayaou entered his mind, which put his heart through the torture of chi-lin, the thousand cuts.
On the other hand, it wasn’t like he was going to lose Ayaou completely. Having Shao-mei in his life was God’s way to make up for his loss. In this younger sister, there was a shadow of Ayaou. They were like twin trees in the forest—both unique but still alike.
His eyes drifted back up to Shao-mei’s face. She smiled and lovely dimples appeared on her cheeks. However, her eyes looked puffy because of her recent tears. What had Patridge done to her? Groaning, Robert closed his eyes and rolled over to face the bulkhead. There were two images in his mind now—Ayaou and Shao-mei.
He tried to convince himself that Ayaou had given herself to him last night for a reason. She knew that they might not be together. He’d been her first choice. Robert shouldn’t consider it a betrayal by taking her sister as his concubine. In fact, he’d be doing her family a service. Shao-mei would be protected instead of exploited and abandoned. He’d never share her with another man. However, as good as these reasons sounded, his conscience refused to buy them.
The bunk creaked as Shao-mei slipped into the narrow space between the outer edge and Robert. Her arms snaked around his body. She pulled herself as close to him as she could. Her naked skin touched his, which aroused him further. He listened to the sound of her breathing.
Robert’s erection was so hard that the skin on the end of his member felt as if it were going to split like a ripe plum while his heart drummed wildly inside his chest.
“Let’s sleep now,” Robert said, turning toward the wall.
She squeezed closer to him. Her naked body was like a spoon pressed against his body. Oh, Dear God, help me, he prayed. Give me the strength to resist this desire.
Shao-mei sighed and physically relaxed. Soon her breathing developed a steady, slow rhythm. She’d fallen asleep. Robert was relieved.
His left side was turning numb. He wanted to roll over but feared waking her. Carefully, slowly, he moved until his weight was off his left arm. When he finished, he was on his right side facing her. Without a sound, she threw an arm across his torso. He gasped and held his breath for a few heartbeats. The arm was slender and long and ended in a delicate hand with lovely fingers. Each nail on each finger was perfectly shaped. It was a hand meant to be held by a lover. He had an urge to lift the hand to his lips and kiss each finger tip, but he resisted. He traced the blue line of a vein back toward her shoulder.
Next he studied her face. It was a smaller version of Ayaou’s with orchid-leaf eyebrows and water chestnut shaped lips. She slept so soundly that she didn’t stir when he accidentally touched her chin. Since his touch didn’t wake her, he ran a finger along her cheek where her skin was smooth like warm glass. When he felt the beast stirring in his loins, he yanked his hand away from her as if he’d burned himself.
Robert closed his eyes and concentrated on something mundane like a long day at work poring over paperwork checking manifests from outbound and inbound cargoes. It didn’t work. He couldn’t get the image of her arm and her face out of his mind. He wanted so much to touch her.
He opened his eyes and looked at her again. This reminded him of a Chinese story he’d read. It was about a large family with eight sisters all married to one master. The story portrayed harmony, which was the key for the family’s survival. Robert thought the story was fake—especially the part where the master was attracted to every one of the girls and took turns to spread his affection evenly. The master had written poems to praise each of his women. To Chinese scholars his most famous poem was the one he wrote for his fifth lady, who died of a sickness. The tragedy brought on by her death must have been the reason it was famous. Robert mentally recited the poem to get his mind off Shao-mei. This time the distraction worked.
‘The maid gently closes the gate
I watch the river from above
Many sails pass
I see no sign of my love
The slanting sunrays cast a lingering glow
The broad water in it continues to flow
The islet with its plots of white flowers in bloom
Each and all contribute to my utter gloom.’
Robert wished Ayaou were here. He was tempted to tell Shao-mei that he loved her sister. He wouldn’t send Shao-mei back to Patridge, but she had to know that Robert’s love belonged to Ayaou. Tomorrow he’d talk to Shao-mei. He’d make her understand.
What a strange land China was. After these thoughts, his mind calmed; his desire faded, and his beast slept.