The next morning, Ayaou was fascinated when he took her on a tour of the house. He started with the front entrance. The house was long and deep. Three large rooms were on the ground floor. Between each room was an open courtyard garden. The previous owners had abandoned the house and never returned. The plants had died.
The kitchen was behind the third garden. Behind the kitchen was another courtyard where the servants hung the laundry. A twelve-foot-high wall surrounded the house. A gate opened to the street.
“This house would hold all the boat people from my village,” she said, her voice filled with awe. She twisted one way then another, as if she were painting the images into her memory. “We might be able to drag our boats here from the river and keep them safe from floods.”
“How many people are in your village?” he asked, afraid of the answer.
“Do you remember the people you saved from the Longhaired Bandits the first time we met?” she replied. “Double that.”
He hoped she would never suggest such a thing. The thought of his house filled with such numbers sent a violent shiver through him. He imagined chickens and roosters running wild; there would be droppings everywhere. Babies would be toddling about without diapers. The floor would never be the same. He shook off the thought and guided her through the last of the downstairs rooms.
The servants’ quarters were behind the last courtyard. Covered walkways ran along both sides to the back. Two stairways led to the second level. One set of stairs came from the kitchen and the other from the walkway to the right of the third hall. Each stairway was outfitted with a two-inch thick wood hatch that could be dropped in place and locked to close off the upper floor.
The family sitting room on the second floor was at the front of the house, with the main bedroom in the back. There were six bedrooms. As nanny, Fooyen would be sleeping in Anna’s room. Robert had turned one bedroom into an office and another into a library.
“I feel like a princess,” Ayaou said. “I do not deserve this.”
The tone of her voice told him she was thrilled. Her response filled him with pride. “You are wrong,” he said. “We both deserve this. You can have a hot bath anytime you want without going to a bathhouse or heating the water. The servants will do the work for you.”
“A true luxury,” she said. “One I will never get used to.”
He told her that he would have a party in two weeks. He’d invited the governor general, the Hoppo of Canton, members of the Yamen, the Tartar general, military officers, Parkes and the other members of the commission, and all the foreign consuls in Canton. “I’m going to show you and this house off. You are worth more than gold.”
“Do not be silly,” she replied. “If you turn me to gold, I will be cold in bed. Having this celebration is the right thing for your career. In China, personal connections are one’s true treasure. I suggest that you provide good food. China is an eating culture. A party without different types of food will be bad. Make sure to order delicacies such as stewed bear paws, deep-fried snakes; marinated sparrows and duck feet.”
His stomach lurched at the thought of marinated sparrows. He’d seen a street vendor selling fried sparrows with the beaks and the feathers still on. “Ayaou, half my guests will be Westerners. They will not eat such things. If I put a feathered sparrow on a Frenchman or Briton’s plate, they will be offended. They might get sick.”
“But what about the Chinese guests?” she asked. “You don’t want to disappoint them, do you?”
“Leave that to Guan-jiah and the cooks,” he said. “We have servants to take care of such things. They know what to do. Cooking isn’t your responsibility any longer. What we are going to do is buy you the best silk gown for this occasion. I want you to look like a Manchu princess.”
“Impossible,” she replied. “I am not a Manchu.”
He ignored her. After all, she was smiling.
He started to have doubts about her joining the dinner party. He wasn’t sure how the others would react. Robert hadn’t forgotten how the missionaries in Ningpo had talked behind Payne’s back about Me-ta-tae.
At the same time, he didn’t want to act as if he was embarrassed about her either. Just having these thoughts bothered him. It took an effort to keep his features composed. He didn’t want her to guess his thoughts.
“Do not forget,” she said, “I am not a princess.”
“Nevertheless,” he replied, “you will be dressed like one.”
The party was planned for a Saturday evening on the day of a full moon.
Karen Lynn Vidra won the drawing for a copy of "Our Hart". Thank you, Karen, for the comments.
Links to Reviews for "Our Hart"
Honorable Mentions in General Fiction